Album review: John Williams’s tremendous Berliner Philharmoniker debut

John Williams conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker at the Philharmonie in October 2021.
© Stephan Rabold

On October 14-16 2021, then 89-year-old John Williams made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker, conducting a mighty selection from his best-loved film scores as well as two concert pieces on three consecutive nights at the orchestra’s Philharmonie home. 

Coming in the heels of the recordings derived from the Maestro’s first appearances with the Wiener Philharmoniker in January 2020, Deutsche Grammophon has done fine job documenting the Berlin performances on CD, vinyl and Blu-ray (audio and video). 

In terms of repertoire, there is very little overlap between the Berlin and Vienna playlists, save from a couple of cues appearing on both recordings; just enough crossings to evoke fascinating comparisons between the sonic traditions of these two astonishing orchestras. In addition, it should be noted that while Williams and the WPh shared the stage with Anne-Sophie Mutter on several pieces specially arranged for her, the Berlin programme was based solely on Williams’s original orchestral adaptations. 

The only concertante piece appearing in the BPh programme is Williams’s sublime Elegy for Cello and Orchestra (1997). Although recorded by Yo-Yo Ma in 2002, the seven-minute piece is a rare gem both in the concert hall and on disc. Thus, having the extraordinary performance by the Berliners and their Principal Cello Bruno Delepelaire caught on microphones is an absolute joy. Under the composer’s baton, the translucent score is given a spellbinding reading, one of deep consolation and compassion. 

The other non-film item on the programme is its jubilant opening piece, Olympic Fanfare and Theme (1984). Written for the opening ceremonies of the Los Angeles Summer Games, Williams’s rousing orchestral tableau is one of his most thrilling scores. Awash with glorious brass fanfares and orchestral sweep, propelled by spirited contributions from the percussion section, Williams and the Berliners launch their playlist with joyful vigour.    

There are total sixteen film cues to follow, thirteen within the concert proper, plus three encores. The movies involved are mostly the famous ones, either concert items from the Star Wars and Harry Potter and franchises or selections from the films by Steve Spielberg, alongside Superman (1978) and Far and Away (1992), perhaps the least-known cinematic endeavour included. 

While most of the music performed here has appeared on numerous recordings over the years, many of them conducted by Williams himself, its is enormously enlightening to hear them clad in the dazzling Berlin sound, with the composer on the podium. In addition, the video format provides the audiences with a firm grasp of the buying atmosphere of the live event, one to dwell in memory forever.  

As in Vienna, the second piece in the programme is one of Williams’s most fascinating concert adaptations, Excerpts from ”Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977). The eight-minute sequence brings together gripping quasi-modernist rumblings, luminous melodic lines, with When You Wish upon a Star quote embedded, as well as the iconic five-note motive connecting the human species and their extra-terrestrial visitors. 

Performed with electrifying intensity and fine-tuned detail, Excerpts from ”Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is one of the high-points in the wonderful programme. 

While Ron Howard’s settler epicFar and Away may not have been met with unanimous praise, the score Williams wrote for it, is nevertheless an inspired one, full of splendid melodies and tapping rhythms, yielding to dexterous orchestral splendour, worthy of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s masterfully intricate instrumental mazes. Woven into pure orchestral magic by Williams and the BPh, the eight-minute Suite from ”Far and Away” is an instant charmer.

The ensuing three selections from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone are given in spellbinding performances, highlighting with the splendid agility of the Berliner Philharmoniker wind players in Williams’s witty miniature masterpiece, Nimbus 2000. In similar vein, Theme from ”Jurassic Park” (1993) is beautifully rendered by the orchestra, from the mysteriously evocative opening horn solo to the exquisite symphonic majesty of the cue’s wonderful tutti passages. There are similar virtues at play throughout Superman March (1978), laid out in its full majesty by the Berliners under Williams.

Williams’s iconic contributions to the Indiana Jones and Star Wars franchises are at the core of the second part of the programme. Launching into orchestral tour-de-force with Scherzo for Motorcycle and Orchestra (1989), an action cue par excellence and a case in point of the Maestro’s peerless mastery of instrumentation, the Berliners provide us with admirably clear-cut textures and thrilling rhythmic impetus. 

The main part of Marion’s Theme (1981/2017) was originally written for Raiders of the Lost Ark. Many years later, Williams came back to the music and added a whole new middle section, giving rise to a sublime concertante piece in ABA form. Rooted in fine-tuned lyricism, the performance evokes the ambience of the Hollywood golden age with its glowing sonorities and soaring melodic lines. Complete the Indiana Jones sequence, an extraordinary take on Raiders March (1981) is heard from the Berlin players, who endorse the score with all their heart and talent.

As for Star Wars, Williams and the orchestra begin, refreshingly, with The Adventures of Han (2018), the composer’s contribution to the main saga’s spin-off Solo: A Star Wars Story. A fascinating example of Williams’s more recent style, The Adventures of Han opens with brass salutations, paving the way for more extended melodic lines, which are developed across sections by the orchestra, including splendid scoring for mallet percussion and timpani. A powerhouse performance from the Berliner Philharmoniker under Williams, the cue makes a huge impact on the new album.  

The two other selections come from the original trilogy; a gracious reading of Yoda’s Theme (1980), followed by a gorgeously solemn look at Throne Room and Finale (1977). Clad in glimmering raiments by the BPh, both cues come off intriguingly different from those initially recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra for the original film soundtracks, serving as apt reminders of film music as vibrantly living form of art, ever open to multitudes of interpretations.

Williams and the orchestra revisit Star Wars in their encores, beginning with a magical performance Princess Leia’s Theme (1977), introduced by luminous solo lines from flute and horn, and captivating developed by the full ensemble. Flying Theme from ”E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982), in its turn, builds up to marvellous symphonic spectacular, with its textures fabulously layered out by the Berliners. 

As in Vienna, Williams closes his Berlin concert with The Imperial March (1980), his vehement portrayal of Darth Vader, first heard on the soundtrack of The Empire Strikes Back. A perfect conclusion, the Maestro and the orchestra bring the house down with their formidable performance, shrouded in applause.  

Tremendous debut concert beautifully documented, The Berlin Concert is the most welcome addition to the Williams discography. The audio recordings bear exemplary focus and acuteness, providing the most rewarding listening experience, appealingly enhanced by the straightforward video presentation.  

Berliner Philharmoniker

John Williams, conductor

Bruno Delepelaire, cello 

John Williams: Olympic Fanfare and Theme (1984)

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

John Williams: Suite from ”Far and Away” (1992)

John Williams: Hedwig’s Theme from ”Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” (2001)

John Williams: Nimbus 2000 from ”Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” (2001)

John Williams: Harry’s Wondrous World from ”Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” (2001)

John Williams: Theme from ”Jurassic Park” (1993)

John Williams: Superman March (1978)

John Williams: Scherzo for Motorcycle and Orchestra from ”Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (1989)

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

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

John Williams: Elegy for Cello and Orchestra (1997)

John Williams: Three Pieces from ”Star Wars”: The Adventures of Han from ”Solo: A Star Wars Story” (2018)

John Williams: Three Pieces from ”Star Wars”: Yoda’s Theme from ”Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back” (1980)

John Williams: Three Pieces from ”Star Wars”: Throne Room and Finale from ”Star Wars: A New Hope” (1977)

John Williams: Princess Leia’s Theme from ”Star Wars: A New Hope” (1977)

John Williams: Flying Theme from ”E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982)

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

Recorded at the Philharmonie Berlin on 14-16 October 2021

Deutsche Grammophon 4861713 (2022), 2 CD & 2 Blu-ray 

© Jari Kallio 

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