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Playing by Heart
  • Composed by John Barry
  • Decca / 57m

With an amazing ensemble cast, it’s a shame that Playing by Heart didn’t really make the most of them: Sean Connery and Gena Rowlands play a couple about to renew their wedding vows, with support from (amongst others) Gillian Anderson, Ellen Burstyn, Angelina Jolie, Dennis Quaid and Madeleine Stowe playing seemingly-disparate characters whose relationships to one another are only revealed at the end.

The only real reason for remembering the film today is because it inspired a truly exquisite score by John Barry – one of his last, and one of his best. Looking at the album you would be forgiven for wondering whether it is even a film score – in one of the most bizarre score rejections I can think of, the producers decided they didn’t want to use Barry’s music despite it being the best thing about the film (and loved by director Willard Carroll to the extent that the film was edited to it) and replacement composer Christopher Young actually persuaded them that really various parts were so good there was no way he (or anyone else) could better them – so the film ended up with a few cues by Barry and the rest by Young (some based on Barry’s!)

John Barry

Anyway, the album can be divorced from all that and enjoyed for what it is. The central musical concept is a kind of passing of a torch from Chet Baker (represented by three vintage tracks) to then-rising trumpet star Chris Botti, very much the focus of Barry’s sumptuous music. The opening cue is even called “Remembering Chet”: Botti’s silky smooth, dreamy solo combining with jazzy piano courtesy of Lee Musiker, the bass of Jay Leonhart along with a string orchestra. It’s the sort of music you want to open a bottle of wine for: late night, smoky, pure luxury.

The second theme is, I think, even better: introduced in “Playing By Heart”, where it’s just that jazz combo (a percussionist and Dan Higgins’s alto sax joining the trumpet, piano and bass), it reaches its zenith in the seven-minute finale “Vows Renewed”, for my money one of the most glorious pieces Barry ever wrote. If its opening appearance feels a bit like sitting in a jazz club with a few friends, in that finale form it’s romantic, full of life, musical bliss.

In between, most of the tracks are built from one or other of those themes (neither of which ever loses its welcome). The pick is the wonderful “A Place Inside Alive and Well”, where the “Playing by Heart” theme gets an exquisite solo performance by regular Barry collaborator, harmonica player Tommy Morgan. The most notable track that contains different melodic material is “Game of Hide and Seek”, with a dreamlike piano solo opening up before an uplifting, typical late-career Barry melody swells up on the strings (it is reprised with full-on melancholy in “Mark’s Graveyard Site” just before the end). Later, “Scene Unseen” has a simple melody repeated and built upon in a fashion so typical of the composer.

A lot of Barry’s scores of this period and the years before had orchestral romance at their heart; just occasionally he would inject a hint of jazz and when he did so the results were generally incredible – “Dance with Reality” from The Beyondness of Things, “Returning Home” from Eternal Echoes – and Playing by Heart. He always did this sort of thing so well – and perhaps this score is a bit like a trip back to his wonderful 1970s concept album Americans, revisited through the lens of the man and composer he was a quarter of a century later.

John Barry wrote music for several more years after Playing by Heart but, sadly, there was to be only one more film score (three years later, for Enigma). His music changed so much from the time he swung along in the early 1960s so these smooth, romantic works which dominated the second half of his composing career; one thing that never changed was his remarkable gift not just as a melodist (a gift for which he had few peers) but also as a musical dramatist, his ability to take listeners off to a time and place of his choosing. His career was littered with so many triumphs and everyone’s personal tastes are different, so I can’t complain that few people seem to ever pick Playing by Heart when they list their Barry favourites – but it’s certainly one of mine. A masterpiece.

Rating: ***** | |

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  1. Jon Malone (Reply) on Sunday 20 September, 2020 at 17:59

    Wonderful review, which captures perfectly my own feelings about this great score but which I don’t have the ability to do so well myself. Thank you.

  2. Geoff Leonard (Reply) on Sunday 20 September, 2020 at 20:04

    Very well written indeed, can’t disagree with any of that. In fact, it’s inspired me to give the album another listen — and I still haven’t seen the film. 🙂

  3. Maarten (Reply) on Friday 25 September, 2020 at 21:47

    At last! Hoped that you would eventually review this score. I love it. It has grown to be my favorite Barry score. It’s so beautiful.

  4. Andrew McSkimming (Reply) on Monday 28 September, 2020 at 18:04

    Have to agree with the review and others comments. This is a seriously underrated late Barry score, including being under-appreciated by myself for many years. Thankfully that has since been corrected and now it is one of my favourites. And I am probably one of the few who saw the film on its original theatrical release.