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John Williams: A Life in Music
  • Composed by John Williams
  • Decca / 50m

I suspect that for many generations to come, the most-performed and most-listened to orchestral music of the second half of the twentieth century will be John Williams’s.  His remarkable career has seen him write such high quality music for such successful films for such a long time, alongside a prolific conducting schedule that has given him the opportunity to arrange so much of it for concert performance, there’s a vast body of work there ripe for repeated performance and recording which continues to delight people and attract new young fans.

This new collection from Decca, commissioned by the British radio station Classic FM, sees a few of the composer’s best-known themes get new performances from the London Symphony Orchestra – who so famously recorded some of the composer’s finest scores – under the baton of Gavin Greenaway.  While the track listing may be unadventurous – and there may be a shrug of the shoulders from the composer’s fans who will have many of these pieces on a whole host of albums already – I think there’s always a place for new recordings like this.

John Williams

The performances are flawless and the recording is terrific, so don’t have any worries there.  The set gets underway – inevitably – with Star Wars, the very familiar suite of main and end titles that is probably the most-recorded piece of music by Williams.  Not for no reason is it so popular: the stunningly portentous opening has lost none of its impact, the main theme is one of the greatest of all film themes – arguably the greatest – and Princess Leia’s theme as beautiful as ever.

From there we travel to Jurassic Park – a score that played a huge part in my own journey to total film music nerd – the stately majesty of the first theme, the awesome power of the second – I never grow tired of hearing it.  Harry Potter is next – the press release for the album makes a big deal about this being the first time the LSO has recorded “Hedwig’s Theme” which is technically true, but many of the orchestra’s players were in the session orchestra that did record the soundtrack performance – anyway, Williams got onto yet another massively successful franchise and wrote yet another indelible theme that passed over into the mainstream public consciousness in a way that little film music manages to do.

The “Raiders March” is taken a little slowly perhaps – but of course it’s another classic; and they don’t let up because next is “Flying” from ET (which features instrumental detail I don’t think I’ve heard in any previous recording of the piece).  Of all the classic Williams themes, that one might just be my favourite.  Schindler’s List is the only piece on the album which offers something a little new – it’s an arrangement (by Williams) for cello rather than violin and this is the first time it’s been recorded that way.  The theme (now 25 years old and, incredibly, the last time Williams won an Oscar) is just as beautiful and moving in this form.

The most “obscure” piece on the album (though the term is entirely relative) is “Flying to Neverland” from Hook, which for the casual audience the album is aimed at will perhaps be the piece they’re most likely to be unfamiliar with.  Musically speaking, it’s just as good as everything else, of course.  Saving Private Ryan‘s “Hymn to the Fallen” sees a choir used for the only time on the album – pleasingly it’s not the curiously abridged version Williams arranged for the concert hall.

It was Jaws that really put Williams on the map as a film composer (though his career was already well underway by that point, with many fine scores behind him) and his main theme remains as famous now as ever.  I understand why he did it, but I’ve never been a big fan of the ending of the concert arrangement, preferring the original, which echoes away to nothing.  Finally we get the greatest superhero theme ever penned, Superman – the tenth track and the tenth classic theme (and probably the best-sounding recording of it that there’s ever been).  The only real criticism of the album is that the 50-minute running time seems a bit stingy – of course I would also have loved to see a slightly less predictable selection of tracks, but given who the set is aimed at, I guess that wasn’t very likely.  Do you need this album?  Perhaps not – but for what it is, it’s very well done and if it helps John Williams’s music find yet another new generation of fans then who can argue?

Rating: **** | |

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