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Spotlight on John Williams
  • Composed by John Williams
  • Prospero / 100m

I haven’t got all the numbers in front of me, but my statistical instincts strongly suggest that John Williams is surely the most-recorded film composer. Alongside all the many albums conducted by the man himself lie a plethora of others performed by ensembles ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. To stand out in this field is quite an ambitious goal and such was that of the Swiss-based City Light Symphony Orchestra, formed as recently as 2018 mostly to perform film scores in concert live-to-picture; this is in fact their debut album recording.

Led by conductor Kevin Griffiths and featuring various notable soloists, the concept behind the album was to shine a spotlight on not just John Williams but also the orchestra itself by featuring a fairly diverse array of Williams’s music. Happily, it also gave the musicians a chance for some work during the lengthy Covid lockdown. A couple of relative rarities in terms of Williams rerecordings are included alongside a swathe of his greatest hits (but not just the usual suspects).

John Williams

The album is split into two discs, the first of which focuses on pieces for full orchestra while the second showcases the pieces for soloist and orchestra. We start with the wonderful Overture from The Cowboys, a rambunctious piece which takes the classic Aaron Copland wide-open-spaces sound and adds Williams’s unmistakable flair – it’s immediately obvious that this isn’t one of those also-ran compilations, with the orchestra sounding delightful as it storms its way through the suite with great panache, the light-hearted touches in particular a delight.

Indiana Jones comes next, but not the usual piece from Indiana Jones – instead, a rare rerecording of the end title from The Temple of Doom, with the ever-dynamic Raiders March sandwiching the score’s main themes of its own. It’s one of the great end titles suites of the composer’s career (and taking into account some of the spectacular ones he’s penned, that’s saying something). A terrific reading of the ever-impressive theme(s) from Jurassic Park is followed by another piece that offers ample opportunity for all parts of the orchestra to shine, Hook‘s “Flight to Neverland” (and shine they do).

Three pieces from Harry Potter follow – and again it’s not the three pieces you’d expect. We get the delightfully spooky “Chamber of Secrets” (the performance is pure dynamite) and the soaring, majestic “Fawkes the Phoenix” from The Chamber of Secrets (perhaps my personal favourite theme from the whole saga) and then a welcome recording of the very rarely-heard “Witches, Wands and Wizards” from The Prisoner of Azkaban, unusual for a Williams concert piece in that it’s essentially a couple of action pieces from the score stuck together – and while it’s unlikely it would figure highly in anyone’s ranking of Williams concert pieces, it’s great to have such a dynamic recording of it.

“The Duel” from The Adventures of Tintin has become a fixture in the composer’s own concert repertoire since that film appeared and it’s easy to see why – his delightful nod towards the swashbuckling film music of the golden age (particularly Korngold’s) is fun, exciting and a real chance for the orchestra to flex its muscles. After this, it’s the theme from Superman – by far film music’s purest expression of comic book heroism and by a considerable margin still its best – and it gets a first-rate reading here (possibly the best rerecording of it I’ve heard, surpassing the Gustavo Dudamel one in my estimation owing to the lack of audience noise).

Star Wars is represented by Williams’s original four-part suite from The Force Awakens – “March of the Resistance”, “Rey’s Theme”, “Scherzo for X-Wings” and “Jedi Steps and Finale”. It is perhaps the composer’s finest score of the 21st century, one that seemed an instant masterpiece when it first appeared and has only grown in many people’s estimation in the time since. The two primary themes he established for the new trilogy are exceptional and they’re done full justice here (my only very slight disappointment is that we didn’t get the full concert arrangement of “Jedi Steps”, only the shorter original version).

The much shorter second disc features various tracks for soloist and orchestra, beginning with renowned trumpeter Reinhold Friedrich’s take on the noble, sensational theme from JFK. The slightly more martial sound to the opening here compared with the original soundtrack offers a nice contrast to the warm dignity of the theme itself. We also hear from him the theme from Born on the Fourth of July – the trouble that all subsequent performances of that piece have is that they have to measure up against that remarkably intense sound from the extended string section on the original recording and no standard orchestra is ever going to do that, but even so this is a nice performance. On both pieces, Friedrich tackles the trumpet very differently from Tim Morrison, and it’s very nice to hear an alternative.

In between those two tracks is the three-part “Escapades for alto saxophone and orchestra” from Catch Me If You Can, which has never been much of a favourite of mine to listen to on album, thinking it benefits from the live environment – I’ve always thought it goes on forever, and you’d have to be a real fan of “white guy jazz” to enjoy it to its fullest, but there’s no faulting the technical accomplishment either of the writing or indeed of the alto sax performance on this recording by Valentine Michaud (accompanied by Fabian Ziegler on vibes and Diego Caruso on bass); Michaud’s virtuosic run through the very challenging solo is notably good.

The light, sweet “Viktor’s Tale” from The Terminal is such a lovely piece, with the clarinet solo performed here with some gusto by Paul Meyer: I’m not sure that deft comedy is particularly Steven Spielberg’s strong point, but Williams captured the intended spirit just perfectly. Also on the lighter side is the opening titles from The Adventures of Tintin, a rarely-performed piece which is just a lovely little comedic vignette. We finish with the furiously fast “Nimbus 2000” from the first Harry Potter, a playful piece with chances for the whole wind section to show their mettle.

This is a well-conceived and well-performed set. I love having all these different recordings of familiar themes, and the City Light Symphony gives a very polished reading of them in a very impressive recording. Basil Böhni’s liner notes are far more incisive than this sort of album usually gets. I like how the album manages to represent the big franchises of the composer’s career without the most obvious pieces from them – Indiana Jones without the first film’s Raiders March, Harry Potter without Hedwig’s Theme, Star Wars without the main theme or Imperial March. In terms of Williams compilations, I’d put it up there with the excellent Keith Lockhart one from 2017 – and fans of the composer will surely love delving into these new takes on the familiar music. How wonderful it would be to hear this orchestra’s spotlights on other great film composers.

Rating: **** | |

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  1. ghostof82 (Reply) on Sunday 16 May, 2021 at 18:20

    Welcome back James, good top see a new post from you. This album looks interesting, but I’m always wary of re-recordings. Not sure why, I suppose its just something about the OST being the ‘definitive’ version of a score, no matter how well the music is re-recorded. That said, I do own some good re-recordings (Vertigo, Conan the Barbarian, various albums reinterpreting Morricone cues like that Yo-Yo Ma album) so maybe I’ll give this a go.

  2. Marc (Reply) on Sunday 16 May, 2021 at 19:29

    A gorgeous album, thanks for the recommendation!