Photo by Mathew Imaging

Photo: Mathew Imaging

Celebrating John Williams (Gustavo Dudamel & The LA Philharmonic Orchestra)

Conductor Gustavo Dudamel‘s recent live album on Deutsche Grammophon is a competently performed compilation of John Williams‘ greatest hits, but when compared to the numerous other recordings of the pieces it presents, the fact that it exists may be a bigger deal than its actual musical qualities.

John Williams‘ impact on not just film music, but today’s orchestral music in general, is hard to (over)estimate. He played a significant part in the renaissance of symphonic film music with his blockbuster scores in the 70s, starting a decades long streak of film scores so well known that they have served as a gateway to orchestral music for generations of listeners who might not otherwise have paid much attention to it.

At age 87, he may have outlived that renaissance – the last major movie franchise that boasted a decidedly “traditional” symphonic score was probably Williams’ own Harry Potter series, which began in 2001 and quickly turned to more modern, less decidedly symphonic sensibilities after Williams’ final score for the series in 2004. In fact, aside from collaborations with Steven Spielberg and his continuing work on the Star Wars franchise – soon sporting 9 full symphonic Williams scores, along with contributions to the Solo spin-off and a theme for the new Galaxy’s Edge theme park – Williams has been focussing on concert works since the beginning of the century.

But while film music was, at best, benevolently smiled at by the musical establishment when Williams won his first original score Oscar for Jaws back in 1975, orchestral film music concerts have become increasingly popular and commonplace in recent years. And Williams’ own film scores have helped shape today’s performers: The London Symphony Orchestra, one of the world’s leading orchestras (which incidentally has a long-standing relationship with Williams since they recorded his original Star Wars score in 1977), now includes several players who cite Williams as a major reason for their career choice. Renowned violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter is excitedly promoting her upcoming album of Williams’ film themes, newly arranged specifically for her by Williams. And Gustavo Dudamel, one of today’s most industrious young(ish) conductors who regularly works with top orchestras all over the world, is also a major Williams fan (and now friend) and frequently includes his music in his own concert programmes.

This is perhaps the most immediate distinguishing mark of this 2CD album: While there has been a steady stream of albums with Williams’ film works for several decades, not least due to his own busy recording schedule when he was principal conductor of the Boston Pops orchestra from 1980 to 1993, there have been decidedly few recordings by major orchestras and conductors. In fact, aside from a handful of recordings of the Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind suites (like Zubin Mehta’s LA Phil recording in 1978, and the Vienna Philharmonic during their 2010 “Pops”-style Sommernachtskonzert), Dudamel’s own 2014 concert with the LA Phil at Walt Disney Concert Hall was probably the first concert by a leading orchestra not conducted by Williams that went beyond his 1977 scores to present a whole evening of works from his career. Five years later, Dudamel returned with a series of concerts with the same orchestra, starting at the same hall, performing roughly one and a half hours of music which only occasionally overlaps with his earlier programme.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Still, while the prestige of the performers is unusual, the programme consists mostly of Williams classics that have been performed and recorded numerous times by Williams himself (mostly with the Boston Pops, occasionally with the LSO) and by other conductors less established than Dudamel, but well known in film music circles.

Unlike traditional orchestral music, symphonic film music, being by its primary intent pure “gebrauchsmusik”, has one original recording that any later re-recording has to compete with, regardless of whether it tries to closely replicate the original (which is of interest mainly for old scores where the original recording has been lost) or to uncover a new side of the composition, like for example a new recording of a Beethoven symphony might. The subjective value of a new recording of film music can therefore be appraised on several points: Interpretation, performance, sound and content – e.g. whether the same version of a piece has been recorded before. How then, based on these points, does this new album compare to the wealth of other Williams recordings and compilations, including his own?

Let’s start with the most “objective” point: Content. The album only features a single previously fully unreleased piece, the extended concert version of the «Adagio» from The Force Awakens. With a runtime of four and a half minutes, it’s considerably longer than the less than two minutes long cue on the original soundtrack (OST), and feels much more substantial. I’ve never been a big fan of the original version, which seemed too short and disconnected from the rest of the score, but the concert version stands on its own much better.

Additionally, several other pieces are presented in rare versions: Olympic Fanfare and Theme (1984) begins with Williams’ original intro (as opposed to the Bugler’s Dream intro recorded by Williams in 1996), but drops the first recapitulation of the theme (as the 1996 version does). It also prominently features the Disney Hall’s organ. «Marion’s Theme» from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) is Williams’ new concert treatment which has only been recorded once before, on the composer’s own compilation The Spielberg/Williams Collaboration, Part III (2017). «Scherzo for Motorcycle and Orchestra» is likewise a new arrangement and differs significantly from the earlier concert version, recorded by Williams himself in 1991. The Close Encounters suite, like nearly all other recordings, is a condensed (less than 10 minutes) extract from the score and, like all such versions, suffers from the fact that such a short suite simply cannot do the score nearly as much justice as Charles Gerhardt’s 20 minute version, especially considering that hardly anyone ever comes close to his interpretation.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Performance, interpretation and sound are harder to separate. The concert was performed four times, on four days in January 2019, and the album was recorded live during these dates. The main sound characteristics are therefore those of a live concert, which perhaps also accounts for many of the initial complaints about the sound and mix by film score fans: The album sounds like a symphony orchestra captured in a relatively reverberant hall, which may be different from close-miked studio recordings of film scores where individual instruments can be isolated at will – perhaps even recorded separately – and any reverb is at the discretion of the recording engineer. A live performance can hardly sport a perfect instrumental balance throughout, and not every note of a 90+ minute concert will be played exactly as intended.

That said, there is no discernible audience noise, and the orchestral performance is generally impeccable, as one would expect from an orchestra of the LA Phil’s calibre. If the instrumental balance is sometimes a bit off, that might be attributable to either Dudamel’s preferences and command of the orchestra, or to the hall’s acoustic properties and sound mix – or perhaps all of those.

There certainly are moments where I miss some orchestral details, either because they are not played loudly enough or because another instrument group overshadows it. Cases in point: The string embellishments in the finale of the Olympic Fanfare are much more prominent than one might be used to from Williams’ own recordings, and consequently the choral character of the brass writing tends to get lost. Also, the long-held woodwind chord near the beginning of the piece sounds unnaturally amplified (as one might be used to from live performances with an amplified orchestra), and the snare drum is certainly unusually prominent throughout the album – whether that is down to the hall’s acoustics, the mix or just a particularly enthusiastic percussionist, I find hard to tell.

Yet while a live performance will never be as perfect and calculated as a studio recording, its big advantage is the suspense derived from performing in the moment, for a live audience. Last year’s London Symphony Orchestra concert of Williams’ music at the Royal Albert Hall, conducted by Dirk Brossé (a last minute replacing for Williams himself, who had fallen ill), is a perfect example, with slower tempi than usual, but all the tension and energy required to keep the performance powerful and maintain a clear arc through each piece.

Jurassic Park (1993)

Dudamel’s interpretations are brisker, closer to the original recordings. It sounds like there is an underlying awareness of playing a “greatest hits” concert, resulting in a slight focus on the occasion rather than on the music itself, at the expense of a strong musical arc. Dudamel’s phrasings seem to differ slightly from Williams’ own, occasionally feeling more legato where Williams would play a note marcato. The combined result is that significant moments occasionally lack a bit of emphasis, and in fact at times seem to speed up slightly, though that may just as well be a result of the live acoustics, coupled with a missed beat by the orchestra. Still, my own perception is that of a slight, but decided, lack of gravitas.

To highlight some individual pieces, «Out to Sea» is a winner, decidedly due to its rather brisk pace which fits the piece’s bouncy character very well. The fugue that follows it might tend to get a bit chaotic at this intensity, but is certainly exciting. The Schindler’s List piece feels flat, perhaps the most by-the-numbers track on the album, without the emotion and impact of the original recording. The opening solo of the Jurassic Park theme features an unusually strongly muted phrase, which gives the segment a curious call and response character that seems rather forced when compared to the stately flow of Williams’ own interpretations. The rest of the main theme is based on the original slow version of the theme (rather than the considerably sped up one from The Lost World), but still sounds ever so slightly brisker (and thus less noble) than my personal ideal.

«Scherzo for Motorcycle and Orchestra» is a powerhouse performance at a similar pace as Williams’ own recording of the older concert version (which in turn feels faster and much more exciting than the OST original), but I prefer the earlier arrangement, which is more straightforward and thus more focused than the new rewrite with all its embellishments. The three pieces from Star Wars are generally very good, with «The Imperial March» playing strongly to my own preferences of a measured and stately, rather than overtly brutal interpretation of the march, much like Williams’ own take with the Skywalker Symphony Orchestra, making it one of the best recordings of the piece. In fact, the pace of all three pieces is remarkably close to that album, with «The Imperial March» differing by just three seconds and «Throne Room and Finale» even matching that version’s running time exactly. Still, the occasional moment of tiny speedups in both pieces, along with a few odd diminuendos in the latter, leave me somewhat unsatisfied. Rounding off the album, the Superman march was the final encore in the concerts, and is played as such, which suits the piece’s heroic character just fine.

Gustavo Dudamel in conversation with John Williams, 2015 (Photo: PBS)

Considering there have been so many different recordings of most of the pieces presented on this album, a final verdict is surprisingly difficult to form, and ultimately may depend on simple personal preferences. When I heard the album for the first time, I found it solid, but curiously shallow. Repeated listens have given me the impression that some of the perceived shallowness, like the slight speedups, may just be the result of individual spots where acoustics and performance don’t quite come together for a brief moment, which should just be expected from a live recording. When hearing new recordings of pieces one knows inside out, a first impression may easily be more negative than the recordings deserve.

Dudamel’s album is certainly a fine compilation on its own, well played, reasonably well recorded and with a good roster of Williams evergreens. Still, some conductors manage to present their own distinct views on the compositions – more than anyone else Charles Gerhardt comes to mind, with his unrivalled Star Wars/Close Encounters album where he succeeds in detaching Williams’ scores from their film-mandated tempi and infusing a romantic sweep that make them, in my view, the definitive recordings of those pieces. Dudamel’s own interpretations are decidedly closer to (among others) Williams’ own, and thus necessarily have a much larger range of contenders.

Ultimately, for a sufficiently committed Williams collector, this album is mainly more of the same – both in content and in style. Neither does it offer a fascinatingly different experience to most other Williams’ compilations (as I imagine an album release of the Brossé concert would), nor does it focus on rarities from Williams’ oeuvre like Lockhart’s Lights, Camera… Music! does. It might be a good entry point to Williams’ works for newcomers – as good an introduction as most comparable programmes, at any rate. On the other end of the spectrum, the small number of rare pieces and premiere recordings is certainly of interest for seasoned collectors.

But the main value, in my opinion, of both the album and the concerts that spawned it, is the fact that Williams’ considerable body of film music is, at long last, being prominently performed by world class orchestras and conductors, and released by major labels, giving it its due place as a significant part in the ongoing tradition of orchestral music.

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