Film music album of the year – John Williams in Vienna

While 2020 may not be counted among the most joyful feasts for the performing arts, it did have its moments. On a personal level, one of the key events of the past year was certainly being there at the Vienna Musikverein for John Williams guest-conducting the Wiener Philharmoniker.

Williams’s debut with the world-renowned orchestra on 18 and 19 January was an eagerly-awaited affair, for the ever hard-working Maestro had made no concert appearances in Europe in this millennium. Originally the concerts were due to take place in the fall of 2018, but Williams was forced to cancel his visits to London and Vienna, due illness.

Luckily for us, the Vienna concerts were rescheduled and eventually took place as planned, on Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning in January, following a spirited week of rehearsals. Sold out, naturally, the two concerts were almost three-hour occasions each, featuring a gorgeous selection of Williams’s output, spanning five decades and including both best-loved classics and lesser-known gems.

Joined by Anne-Sophie Mutter, Williams and the orchestra also played several concertante arrangements, tailor-made for the soloist by the Maestro, first heard on the 2019 Deutsche Grammophon studio album Across the Stars.

In all my concert-going life, I don’t think I’ve ever been to an equally uplifting, roaring and soaring affair than these once-in-a-lifetime Williams celebrations in the wintry Vienna. Having the Maestro on the podium in good spirits and the Wiener Philharmoniker playing their hearts out will remain ever etched in memory.

Thanks to DG, one has not to rely on memory alone, for an album release of the Vienna concerts appeared in August, titled simply John Williams in Vienna. Released both in audio and video formats, not forgetting a beautiful gatefold double vinyl and its limited edition, featuring a personal message from the Maestro himself.

The entire concert programme is included as-is in the Blu-ray video, while all audio renditions are limited to thirteen tracks, recorded in the course of rehearsals. If one is to make it with a single buy, the Blu-ray/CD combination is the most recommendable one.

While there have been several studio albums of Williams conducting his own music with the London Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Pops and other ensembles, video releases of the Maestro conducting are surprisingly scarce. Williams’s 2018 appearance to conduct the world premiere of Highwood Ghost (2018) with the Boston Symphony, Yo-Yo Ma and Jessica Zhou as a part of Tanglewood’s Leonard Bernstein centennial concert, subsequently released on Blu-ray/DVD by C Major, might be the only one available, thus making the Vienna video ever more precious.

On Blu-ray, the concert is given a refreshingly straightforward presentation, with the only edits being made to the applauses and stage logistics. Williams’s brief spoken introductions are preserved intact, and luckily so, for they provide a key contribution to the warmhearted, intimate tone of the astounding event.

There are no ceiling pans or other types of ”atmospheric” visual gimmickry in the manner of some of the New Year’s Concert videos. Instead, the camerawork is delightfully matter-of-factly, providing the home audiences some wonderful insights on the brilliant teamwork between Williams and the seemingly enthusiastic Viennese musicians.

Williams’s conducting shuns all unnecessary fuss and showmanship. Based on a lifetime experience in the studio, the composer focuses on delivering a top-class performance with his fellow musicians, letting the music speak eloquently for itself.

Clad in the astonishing sounding guise of the Wiener Philharmoniker, this is indeed a performance like no other. While there are several marvellous recorded takes of some of the Vienna repertoire already available, the inimitable sonic tradition of the Wiener Philharmoniker does yield to something truly extraordinary.

Anne-Sophie Mutter, Wiener Philharmoniker and John Williams at the Musikverein in January. © Terry Linke / Deutsche Grammophon

There are several big, iconic pieces involved, including the sweeping concert opener, Flight to Neverland from Hook (1991), the rousingly atmospheric Theme form Jurassic Park (1993) and the apotheosis of film overture, the heroic Main Title from Star Wars (1977).

The Wiener Philharmoniker make Williams’s orchestral fabric shine in the full spectrum of symphonic colour. Glowing with sonic warmth, these performances, with the composer at the helm, showcase Williams’s impeccable craft for orchestral writing.

Williams’s more recent output is celebrated with dazzling performances of The Rebellion is Reborn (2017), an invigorating excerpt from the composer’s score to the penultimate installment of the Star Wars Saga (1977-2019), and Dartmoor, 1912 fromWar Horse (2011), the Maestro’s soaring tribute to Ralph Vaughan Williams.

While most of the pieces in the programme are performed in various concert adaptations, the ten-minute Adventures on Earth from Steven Spielberg’sE.T. – The Extra Terrestrial (1982) derives from the actual film cues, providing the audience with a hands-on excerpt of film scoring in its most authentic guise.

The spectacular performance by the Wiener Philharmoniker endorses, not on the ”composer’s delicate vanity”, as Williams himself lovingly puts it, but the very essence of the art of film scoring itself. The craft of writing astonishing orchestral drama, ever interlocked with the on-screen action, is something we, as movie-goers, often take granted, without noticing the multi-layered artistry required in a scoring and performing the music on the soundtrack.

As an orchestra made of the brilliant musicians of the Vienna State Opera, the Wiener Philharmoniker convey the inherent dramaturgy of Williams’s music with fluency and assuredness. Combined with their refined expression, I cannot imagine film music better served than on this album.

In contrast to all the upbeat action-music, several forays into Williams’s more sublime music are also featured, highlighting with Luke and Leia, a symphonic meditation from The Return of the Jedi (1983) and the luminous concert adaptation of Marion’s Theme from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981/2017), with a new middle section added to the original film cue.

Be it the most intense action music or the most gentle underscoring of inner drama, the Wiener Philharmoniker deliver superb performances, making the composer proud. In the quasi-modernist excerpts from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and the spellbinding contrapuntal textures of The Shark Cage Fugue from Jaws (1975), the orchestral textures are awash with sonic heat while the music unfolds in admirably translucent manner. 

On Blu-ray video, no less than seven concertante pieces for Anne-Sophie Mutter are included. In the concert proper, a four-piece sequence is heard on the first half, followed by three more pieces in the encores.

The first sequence opens with a spellbinding performance of Hedwig’s Theme from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001/2019). Here Williams’s musical fantasy appears in the most alluring guise, evoking a fairy-tale realm worthy of Ravel

Back to this world, the utterly charming Theme from Sabrina (1995/2019), written for Sydney Pollack’s remake of the 1954 Billy Wilder classic, is Hollywood romance at its best, whereas Donnybrook Fair from Far and Away (1992/2019) revisits the American epic with its Irish-flavored vernacular clad in Coplandesque Technicolor. 

These two pieces examine polar opposites of Mutter’s art, mixing sublime lyricism with flamboyant, tour-de-force virtuosity. Both performed with excellence and spirited musicality by Mutter and the orchestra, with Williams, they make a spot-on pair.   

Williams’s Dance macabre, Devil’s Dance from The Witches of Eastwick (1987/2019), closes the first set. The only solo piece in the programme not featured on the Across the Stars album, Devil’s Dance is the sole Mutter performance included in both video and audio format on the new album. 

Written in 12/8 time, and marked marche diabolique, Devil’s Dance is morbid comedy at its finest. Magnificently performed by Mutter and the Wiener Philharmoniker under the composer’s baton, Devil’s Dance is an absolute gem.     

In the encores, Williams and the orchestra are joined by Mutter for three very different scores. They open with a rarity, Nice to Be Around from Cinderella Liberty (1973/2019). Although nominated for Academy Awards, the score has been unjustly neglected over the years, along the film itself. 

In similar vein to the studio take on Across the Stars, the performance recorded here is a disarmingly affectionate one – a most welcome programme choice indeed. 

The Duel from The Adventures of Tintin (2011/2019) is Williams’s nod to the swashbuckler scores of the Hollywood Golden Age in general and Erich Wolfgang Korngold in particular. Cast as a witty ballet sequence for violin and orchestra, the virtuoso writing in The Duel evokes amazement and good cheer, especially in a top-class performance like the one recorded here.   

Anne-Sophie Mutter and John Williams onstage at the Musikverein. © Terry Linke / Deutsche Grammophon

Closing the Mutter encores, a touching account of Remembrances from Schindler’s List (1993) is heard. In the ensuing Raiders March from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Mutter joins the first violin section, as the orchestra and Williams give a loving outing for the best-loved theme. 

The concert is finally brought to its inevitable end with a thundering performance of The Imperial March from The Empire Strikes Back (1980). Often taken granted due to its immense popularity, The Imperial March is, in fact, one of the most perfectly shaped pieces ever penned by Williams.

The undownable vigor of the score is conveyed with tremendous sonic might by the glorious Wiener Philharmoniker performance, thus providing a perfect close for the programme. 

The DG album is, without doubt, the single most important film music release of 2020. A case in point of superb music-making, combined with a well-chosen playlist, endorsed by excellent album presentation, who could ask for anything more. 

Wiener Philharmoniker

John Williams, conductor

Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin

John Williams: Flight to Neverland from Hook (1991)

John Williams: Excerpts from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

John Wiiliams: Hedwig’s Theme from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001/2019)*

John Williams: Theme from Sabrina (1995/2019)*

John Williams: Donnybrook Fair from Far and Away (1992/2019)*

John Williams: Devil’s Dance from The Witches of Eastwick (1987/2019)

John Williams: Adventures on Earth from E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

John Williams: Theme from Jurassic Park (1993)

John Williams: Dartmoor, 1912 from War Horse (2011)

John Williams: Out to Sea / Shark Cage Fugue from Jaws (1975)

John Williams: Marion’s Theme from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981/2017)

John Williams: The Rebellion is Reborn from The Last Jedi (2017)

John Williams: Luke and Leia from The Return of the Jedi (1983)

John Williams: Main Title from Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)

John Williams: Nice to Be Around from Cinderella Liberty (1973/2019)*

John Williams: The Duel from The Adventures of Tintin (2011/2019)*

John Williams: Remembrances from Schindler’s List (1993)*

John Williams: Raiders March from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

John Williams: The Imperial March from The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

*only on Blu-ray

Recorded at the Musikverein, Vienna, 18-19 January 2020 (Blu-ray) 

DG 00028948390458 (2020), 1 Blu-ray & 1 CD 

© Jari Kallio

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