February 17, 2022


John Williams: Orchestral Music. Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by John Williams. Deutsche Grammophon. $19.98 (2 CDs).

     There is a common misconception among classical-music lovers and non-fans alike that classical music is a world apart from all other forms – a world above them if you favor the genre, a world remote from them if you do not. A consequence of this thinking is the belief that composers who have reached in the last few decades into non-classical genres, such as jazz and non-Western music, are bold trailblazers who are finding ways to unite the more-esoteric realm of classical music with various more-popular types, such as film music.

     All this is demonstrably false and can be rather enjoyable to debunk. When it comes to film music, for example, the very first score specifically written for a movie was created by none other than Camille Saint-Saëns – for the 1908 film L’assassinat du Duc de Guise. And the very first score composed frame by frame was created by none other than Erik Satie, in 1924, for a movie called Entr’acte – for which Satie also invented the first-ever system for synchronizing music to specific frames. And over time, it was classical and classically trained composers who not only participated in the film world but also often came to create works without which the films would have been far less memorable and successful: Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Copland, Bernstein, more recently John Corigliano and Philip Glass – and what would Citizen Kane or Psycho have been like without the music of Bernard Herrmann?

     So the reality is that the line between the classical and non-classical fields can be so thin that it disappears altogether. This is certainly so in the work of masters of film music including, quite emphatically, John Williams. Born in 1932, Williams is still going strong and scarcely resting on his many laurels – but he clearly does not mind trotting out a good selection of his well-known, well-thought-out compositions for a new two-CD Deutsche Grammophon release featuring Williams as both composer and conductor. And Williams here leads nothing less than the magnificent Berlin Philharmonic, an ensemble capable of making even the trivial sound important. Not that Williams’ music is trivial – but it has never before sounded quite the way it does here. The orchestra makes some compromises in its justly famous warm, beautifully rounded tones, especially by modifying the brass section to include brighter-sounding American trumpets – the result being that it gives a kind of surface polish to Williams’ music that stands in considerable contrast to the orchestra’s handling of, say, Richard Strauss. But the ensemble gives Williams all the elegance, all the panache, and all the respect that it lavishes on the more-central classical repertoire, with the result that Williams’ music, however intimately connected it may originally have been with the films for which it was created, here takes on a concert-hall life of its own that shows with just how much care Williams composes and just how well he understands the Romantic-era scoring and emotional heft in which he specializes.

     It is easy to grasp the feelings evoked on the screen by listening to these Williams works, whether or not one actually knows the films. Williams conducts Olympic Fanfare and Theme, Superman March, and music from such blockbusters as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Jurassic Park, two of the Indiana Jones movies, several films in the Star Wars canon, and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. He also offers a suite from the less-known, less-successful Far and Away, plus a lovely Elegy for Cello and Orchestra in which soloist Bruno Delepelaire thoroughly explores a somewhat more-intimate side of Williams than is usually present in his film work. Listeners get to hear not only Williams’ music but also Williams himself: he sprinkles some introductions and comments throughout the recording. Most of the music here is familiar and some, in truth, is hyper-familiar. But none of it has previously sounded as distinctive, and as distinctly “classical,” as it does here. In this recording, the roots of Williams’ art show clearly through orchestral interpretations that more than do justice to his thinking – they bring his works far beyond their original purpose of illustrating and underlining visual material and show them quite able to stand entirely on their own in a concert setting. Very few composers’ movie music is this worthy of being heard in a non-film context: certainly the early material by Saint-Saëns and Satie has curiosity value, but those composers’ greatness lies elsewhere. Williams’ excellence, it is clear, lies not only in his ability to enhance visual experiences for a film audience but also in his skill at creating music that deserves to be performed and perceived for its own inherent qualities, not simply for the effectiveness with which it functions as part of a theatrical experience.

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