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John Williams & Steven Spielberg: The Ultimate Collection
  • Composed by John Williams
  • Sony Classical / 2017 / 209m

When Steven Spielberg says that John Williams is the single most important collaborator of his career, he really means it.  And the reverse holds.  Jaws was their second film together and propelled both of them to the top of their professions; Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Indiana Jones, ET, Jurassic Park all followed – and plenty more.  Some people (let’s refer to these people as “morons”) may say that the best kind of film music is the kind you don’t notice.  Well, in terms of Hollywood blockbusters, you don’t find better film music than in those films, and boy do you notice it.  Williams’s contribution to Spielberg’s films is immeasurable.

Williams first recorded a retrospective compilation of his Spielberg scores after Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, their tenth film together.  The Spielberg/Williams Collaboration, performed by the Boston Pops Orchestra, was an excellent collection covering all ten of those films.  It wouldn’t be long before there was a second volume, Williams on Williams: The Classic Spielberg Scores, which included further selections from some of those films along with more from their next three collaborations.  Over twenty years later, the films together have kept on coming – but most people (including me) had given up hope of a third volume.

John Williams and Steven Spielberg

Well, here it is.  Sony Classical have packaged the third volume together with the first two for physical release (there’s a bonus fourth disc with an interview with the pair) under the banner of The Ultimate Collection.  The newly-recorded third volume has also been released separately, digitally (despite earlier stories claiming it wouldn’t be).  There’s no Boston Pops this time – Williams hasn’t recorded outside California for some time – instead his favourite LA players are together under the banner of The Recording Arts Orchestra of Los Angeles.

The first volume opens with what may be the most iconic piece of music to come from this legendary partnership (though there are other contenders to that throne later on), “The Raiders March” from Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Instantly heroic and adventurous, it’s so perfect for Indiana Jones, Williams somehow perfectly evoking the spirit of the kind of adventures the film was trying to recall many decades after the fact, while providing music that didn’t seem cheesy or dated in 1981 and still doesn’t in 2017.  It takes the roof off the house every time the composer conducts it in concert (which is every time he does a concert).

After starting with such an iconic piece, the album then goes to the theme from a film much less-known, Always.  Warm, romantic and charming, it’s a lovely piece, gradually building up until it soars away above the clouds.  Speaking of which, there’s a more than a bit of flying up next too, with the abridged concert version of ET‘s “Adventure on Earth”.  I wish it wasn’t abridged (and was lucky enough to see Williams conduct the full version at the Hollywood Bowl in 2012) but it still packs such an emotional punch, a perfect example of the composer’s genius at writing narrative music which tells its own story.  At that concert I attended, the film’s finale was projected live during the music, but you don’t need to watch it to know exactly what’s happening – even if you’ve never seen the film.  I’m not sure any other film composer’s ever come close at that sort of thing.

Back down on earth comes the only released recording of any music at all from the very first Spielberg/Williams collaboration, 1974’s crime drama The Sugarland Express.  Pre-Jaws Williams was very different from post-Jaws Williams and this is a decent example of his earlier style, with a lovely bucolic sound highlighted by a great harmonica solo.  Interestingly, many of the composer’s most recent scores for Spielberg have featured a very earnest Americana; this is Americana of a very different kind.

The film that launched the pair into the stratosphere was Jaws and it is represented here by two pieces.  Nothing needs to be said about the main theme – it’s truly brilliant, despite the oft-told anecdote about how Spielberg originally thought it was a joke – though I’m not sure about the bombastic ending it gets in its concert form (the original arrangement, with it fading away to nothing representing the shark retreating back under water ready for the next attack, is if nothing else more cerebral).  “Out to Sea / The Shark Cage Fugue” opens with that deliciously jaunty scherzo before the powerful orchestral onslaught of the fugue itself.

Steven Spielberg and John Williams, 1974

Empire of the Sun‘s “Exsultate Justi” is a brilliant choral creation, and I just love the concert arrangement of it, so full of joy.  Then comes one of my personal favourite Williams pieces, “Parade of the Slave Children” from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, in I think the only Williams-conducted recording of the concert version of the original soundtrack’s “Slave Children’s Crusade”.  It’s such an insanely catchy melody (and I’ve always loved the fact that you can sing the title of the film to it, 633 Squadron-style) and this is such a brilliant arrangement, with the children’s theme surrounding Short Round’s Theme from the film.

We go back to ET next for the lovely, sprightly piano theme “Over the Moon” before the rousing, insanely catchy Souza-esque march from 1941.  A WWII film of a very different kind returns next, with Empire of the Sun‘s outstanding “Cadillac of the Skies”.  A sweeping, very moving piece, Williams hadn’t really written anything like it before and it remains one of the highlights of his career: the circular melody, the heavenly choir, the gradual build of the power of the orchestra, it’s so glorious.  The quality level doesn’t drop: next up is the sensational “Scherzo for Motorcycle and Orchestra” from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the kind of witty and adventurous music the composer did so often for that series.  The disc ends with “Excerpts” from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which combines music from the start and end of the score.  I’ve always thought it was one of Spielberg’s strongest films and Williams’s score is similarly brilliant, veering from the complex and challenging to the fully romantic.  It’s possibly not awarded the same kind of legendary status as some of his others purely because people unfairly think only of that five-note motif, but it’s a stunner.  Disc one is one of the greatest composer-centred film music compilations there’s ever been.

The second volume opens with “Flying” from ET, a piece about which little needs to be said.  I can never tire of hearing it.  Another of my favourite Williams pieces follows, what’s billed as “Theme from Jurassic Park” but is actually both main themes.  It does miss the choir of the original, but remains magnificent.  From the same year comes the first of the album’s two pieces from Schindler’s List, “Remembrances”.  It’s not as well-known as the score’s main theme, but deserves to be – very affecting music.

The most well-represented score on the album is, perhaps slightly surprisingly given how the film was received, Hook.  This is a wonderful thing because the five pieces are all grand concert arrangements which build upon and extend the score’s highlights.  The first is “Flight to Neverland”, the score’s main theme, which soars away thrillingly and is a real treat.  We briefly, unexpectedly, return to 1941 for the rollicking “The Battle of Hollywood” with its manic version of “The Rakes of Mallow”.  Back in Neverland, “Smee’s Plan” is the perfect follow-up to this, continuing the slightly comic tone (but with a wonderful Williams original melody this time).

That comic feel is then abruptly cast aside for “The Barrel Chase” from Jaws.  Given it features music from both of the tracks from that score which appeared on the first album it’s perhaps a bit surprising it’s here, but it really is terrific in its own right, nautical thrills mixing with a bit of terror.  Jurassic Park‘s “My Friend, the Brachiosaurus” gets a fleshed-out version: it’s such a lovely, warm, romantic piece of music – it may not be nearly as well-known as much of what surrounds it, but it’s great that Williams included it.  The sprightly “Jim’s New Life” from Empire of the Sun is another little treat, so full of innocent joy.

“The Dialogue” from Close Encounters is an understandable inclusion given how famous it is within the film (and it is of course a brilliant creation), but it does stick out a bit on the album.  The grandiose “Lost Boys’ Ballet” from Hook gets things back on track – it’s so exuberant and happy.  Quite the reverse is true of the theme from Schindler’s List, which has lost none of its ability to send a shiver down the spine.  The exceptional “Basket Chase” from Raiders of the Lost Ark is the type of music only John Williams has ever really written for film with any great regularity – so florid and intricate, witty and built on a tremendously catchy tune.  The disc – which may not be quite as unfailingly brilliant as the first one, but is still wonderful – ends with two final pieces from Hook, first the gut-wrenchingly beautiful “The Face of Pan”, which everyone says is like Georges Delerue’s Agnes of God – and that’s because it is – but the melody is pure Williams magic; and finally, the lengthy “Banquet Scene”, all opulent and grandiose.

So, that took us up to 1993 – but there have been 14 more films together since, plus two shorts – more than enough material for a third volume.  Sadly, it did prove to be slightly “more than” could be accommodated – but we have selections from twelve of those projects, plus another oldie too.  There aren’t any iconic films like Jaws, ET or Raiders in this period – with Spielberg generally focusing on more “serious” subjects and, when he has tried to recapture that sort of magic, they haven’t really met with the same success.  This is of course reflected in Williams’s music – there’s been a lot of serious Americana in this period – but it still makes for great listening.

Things kick off with “The Adventures of Mutt” from the rather ill-advised fourth Indiana Jones film The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.  But if the film didn’t manage to live up to its predecessors, Williams still managed to write some great music – in particular this track.  Here it’s taken slightly slower than the original but is otherwise faithful, and great fun.  Then comes the wonderful “Dry Your Tears, Afrika” from Amistad, which as a whole may be one of the low-points of the duo’s lengthy collaboration – but boy is this track something special, even more so in its concert arrangement than in the original (and I believe this is the first recording of it).  It has a jubilee feel to it, and is almost impossibly rousing.

The most recent collaboration, The BFG, was one of Spielberg’s biggest box office disappointments despite very favourable reviews; Williams clearly loved it and wrote a score quite brilliantly intricate (the flute writing is just astonishing), with the very surprising drawback that none of the various themes is a true show-stopper.  Still, this seven-and-a-half-minute suite captures an awful lot of quality.  Lincoln is represented by two versions of the same track, “With Malice Towards None”, which seems rather odd at first but they’re actually very different from each other.  The first offers a showcase for trumpet and is filled with rich warmth and those really moving elegiac strings Williams does from time to time.

My favourite track on the third volume (and of Williams’s later career for Spielberg) is “The Duel” from The Adventures of Tintin (retitled from the soundtrack’s “The Adventure Continues”) – it’s just so much fun, a fitting tribute to the great seafaring, swashbuckling film scores of several generations ago while being unmistakably a John Williams composition.  Next is Minority Report, with the sweeping finale “A New Beginning” being hardly representative of the score as a whole, but clearly the most obvious piece to include on the album.  The longest representation of a single score on the album comes in the form of Catch Me If You Can, with the sixteen-minute, three-movement “Escapades” Williams evidently loves so much.  He probably loves it because it gave him the chance to go back to his jazzier roots, but I have to say I start looking at my watch during it quite a lot, wondering how long is left.  The celebratory third movement “Joy Ride” is my favourite and all I really feel I want; I may be in a minority of one but I find “Reflections” in particular somewhat interminable, technically accomplished though it undoubtedly is.

The only “oldie” on the third disc is “Marion’s Theme” from Raiders of the Lost Ark, in an arrangement Williams made around the time the fourth film came out.  It’s a vintage Williams love theme from that period with clear echoes of Princess Leia’s and Lois Lane’s, and it’s great to have a recording of this rapturous take on it.   Saving Private Ryan‘s “Hymn to the Fallen” is a wonderful piece in its original form but I have to say I find the abridged version here seems to lose something in comparison and the pace is too fast.  That’s not a problem for “Dartmoor, 1912” from War Horse, which gave Williams the chance to explore an English pastoral sound (similar in some ways to his early Jane Eyre score) and it’s a real treat.

The Terminal seems to be rather a forgotten film and score, but “Viktor’s Tale” is a delightfully comic, lighthearted piece of music.  “Prayer for Peace” from Munich is simply outstanding, the emotion wrought so exquisitely from the strings.  The short documentary The Unfinished Journey, directed by Spielberg to mark the turn of the millennium, is represented by “Immigration and Building”, which is structured like Williams’s ceremonial music and is rousing and very satisfying.  Finally, the must-have collection ends with the alternative version of Lincoln‘s “With Malice Towards None”, the focus this time on the strings rather than trumpet.  It’s intriguing how different it is and I have no complaints with both versions being included.

This is a truly great collaboration and these three discs offer an exceptional summary of it.  It’s a shame that some things aren’t here – War of the Worlds might not be the easiest score to translate into four minutes on a compilation like this, but The Lost World and AI would have been, and the exclusion of the latter in particular is a real head-scratcher.  Still, it’s only right to celebrate what is here rather than bemoan what isn’t – and what’s here is one of the finest collections of film music that’s ever been assembled.

Rating: *****

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  1. John Chambers (Reply) on Monday 20 March, 2017 at 21:28

    Great review of a terrific set, I’ve listened to the third disc 5 times since I received it on Friday, it’s such a treasure.

  2. TJ (Reply) on Thursday 23 March, 2017 at 01:49

    Thanks for the heads up about the digital release of Disc 3. I had no idea.