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John Williams in Vienna
  • Composed by John Williams
  • Deutsche Grammophon / 75m

When John Williams fell ill after arriving in London in 2018 for his first concert appearance in Europe in decades, it impacted not just the London concert (which went ahead under a different conductor) but also one scheduled for Vienna shortly thereafter (which was cancelled). I doubt that at the time anyone really thought he would be back – but surely enough in January 2020, there he was, for an historic pair of concerts with the Wiener Philharmoniker – his first ever in mainland Europe, the orchestra’s first ever film music concerts – he was clearly honoured to have the opportunity to conduct the prestige orchestra, they appeared honoured to have him, and everyone who was there had an unforgettable time.

Fortunately the occasion has been recorded and released by Deutsche Grammophon to enable the rest of us to experience it. It’s clearly not as good as being there – but it’s the next best thing. Williams’s music has been played by countless orchestras around the world for a long time (and hopefully will go on being so) but I doubt it has often sounded as good as this.

The legendary Vienna brass sound lends a certain spectacular quality to Williams’s music: from the breezy opening track, Hook‘s “Flight to Neverland”, through the always-brilliant suite from Close Encounters to the reference-quality recording of the theme from Jurassic Park. The latter is one of my favourite Williams concert pieces – I know it’s always taken a lot faster than the equivalent pieces on the original soundtrack (which inevitably causes complaints from some) and it lacks the choir, but it’s just so good and to hear it in this quality is really something else.

I’m not the biggest fan of the abridged concert version of “Adventures on Earth” from E.T. but this recording of it leaves me sitting open-mouthed and with hairs standing on end in places I didn’t know I had hairs.

Anne-Sophie Mutter was the featured soloist and, while most of her performances were excised from the album to make it fit onto a single CD (I don’t really know why they didn’t just release a double – I guess they may still do, to make people buy the thing again) they were all on the “Across the Stars” album last year in studio recordings, so we can forgive that. What does remain of her performance is “Devil’s Dance” from The Witches of Eastwick, an arrangement that wasn’t quite ready for inclusion on that album, so it’s great that it is here: I’ve always loved the theme, one of the composer’s wittiest creations, and it shines in this new form.

When you hear the stunning flute solo that opens “Dartmoor, 1912” from War Horse you imagine it must surely be that piece’s highlight – then you hear the rest of the piece. It’s blessed with such a warm sound, particularly the brass (again) at the end. The most non-standard piece is “Out to Sea / The Shark Cage Fugue” from Jaws – I love that it was included, and even if on this occasion the orchestra does lose its way somewhat, it’s still great to hear.

In fact the low-point (if I have to select one) comes when it’s time for Williams’s – indeed, film music’s – most famous piece, the theme from Star Wars. It all goes a bit wrong as the main title segment nears the end and things don’t really fully recover, which is odd given there were two different performances to choose from for inclusion on the disc (maybe the other one was no better). The other selections from the saga fare better – a stunning performance of The Last Jedi‘s “The Rebellion is Reborn”, the ever-brilliant “Luke and Leia” and most impressively, “The Imperial March” – Williams himself said it had never sounded better and who am I to disagree? (In fact it wasn’t originally scheduled by Williams as part of the performance but was added at the last minute as a fifth (!) encore at the request of the orchestra.)

The final originally-scheduled encore was (as usual in Williams concerts) the “Raiders March” – he takes it at a particularly slow tempo which robs it of some of its power but nevertheless, it’s nice to have (yet) another recording of such a classic piece. (It does also make the earlier inclusion of “Marion’s Theme”, lovely though it is, seem somewhat redundant – imagine if he’d done “Parade of the Slave Children” instead!)

The regular CD sounds so stunning, I can’t begin to imagine how good the Ultra-High Quality MQA disc must sound (but it appears to cost only marginally less than getting Williams and the orchestra to come to your house and play in your living room). As well as that there’s also a CD/Blu-Ray combo which includes the full concert (including the Mutter pieces missing from the CD) and that is undoubtedly the recommended option for any Williams fan – with everything that’s happened in 2020, who knows how often anyone will get to see him in concert in person again – this really is the next best thing. No live concert recording is ever going to be perfect and even the Wiener Philharmoniker are going to make mistakes, especially when playing music they’ve never played before, and such is the case here – but it’s very easy to forgive the few that creep in. Just put the album on, play it as loud as you can / your family will allow, and luxuriate in some of the finest recordings of some of the greatest film music that’s ever been written. It’s an instant classic.

Rating: ***** | |

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  1. Dinko (Reply) on Thursday 20 August, 2020 at 01:10

    Thanks for the review James!
    Glad it’s a great album!

    Tiny bit of trivia: this is the Vienna Philahrmonic’s 2nd live recording of Star Wars bits (the previous also on Deutsche Grammophon). The earlier is from a decade ago with Franz Welser-Möst conducting.

    It appears out of print now:

  2. Isaac (Reply) on Monday 19 October, 2020 at 19:40

    Doesn’t the Wiener Philharmoniker play every year film music for the “Hollywood in Vienna” concerts, or are those different musicians? o_O