A fitting tribute to a true legend – John Williams

A fitting tribute to a true legend – John Williams
I’m more than a fan. I think I’m even more than an aficionado. John Williams is an inspiration; a musical hero, really. And of course when I saw this production, I had to have it. Even though I have just about everything of his on CD (from original soundtracks, to Boston Pops albums and collections from other conductors, to non-film Classical music), I am thrilled to discover so many new things in this set. Not only some early soundtrack recordings, but interesting and insightful reading in a new interview with the 91-year-old maestro.
 
This is a Universal Music France production in association with Decca, which contributes some recordings from the Philips and DG labels. It is presented in a huge, bound, hard-back book containing several pages of CD packet enclosures (with still photos from the films and convenient, simple track listings on them), filled with 20 CDs of music and an enormous 44-page oversized paperback book in its own sleeve at the back. The sheer size of it is impressive, although the CD sleeves are attached to thick, heavy-duty corrugated sheets acting as dividers, which make up a large part of its bulk. It also makes it somewhat difficult to remove the CDs from their enclosures without ripping apart the paper sleeves. It’s the most unusual packaging I’ve encountered.
 
This collection concentrates on the earlier soundtracks, many of which may not be knowingly attributed to Williams. There are also several popular Spielberg scores which will surely satisfy the casual enthusiast. However, I found it odd that this collection almost completely ignores his later soundtracks (from the new Star Wars [1999] forward), thus excluding many wonderful scores of the past 2 decades. (The one exception is the inclusion of 4 short excerpts from the Indiana Jones Crystal Skull reboot of 2008.) The early recordings are impressively remastered, with careful attention as to level matching throughout – from score to score, from a multitude of sources. Most CDs are generously filled, many with over 70 minutes of music. 
  
Let’s start with a brief overview of what we get:
Discs 1 & 2 – excerpts from several Boston Pops albums recorded in the 1980s by Philips
Discs 3 – 7 – Early, rare scores for TV and film – including a disc of Disaster movies and another of Westerns
Discs 8 – 12 – Some of the more familiar Spielberg films
Disc 13 – 17 – Offerings from filmmakers Oliver Stone, Ron Howard, Sydney Pollack and others
Disc 18 – the abysmal 2019 DG disc of violin arrangements made for Anne-Sophie Mutter
Disc 19 – Concert works
Disc 20 – Songs and instrumentals 
 
THE MUSIC
The first 2 discs of Boston Pops excerpts are the usual, familiar fare which most collectors will already own. These are splendid, zestful readings which still sound excellent. Recorded in the early days of digital, they are brighter and more immediate than the traditional Philips house sound – appropriately so for this music. (See complete track listings below)

*Note: Everything on Discs 3-17 described below is taken from Original Soundtrack Recordings (as opposed to Boston Pops concerts) – with one notable exception on Disc 7 (detailed in the text).
 
With Disc 3, the real discoveries begin. Dating from the 60s, these scores have a nice blend of swing and jazz instrumentals, heavily laden with trumpets and saxes. Yet even here, there are hints along the way of the John Williams (JW) to come. There is always his amazing gift of melody, no matter the style or genre. A couple of tracks also include a small vocal ensemble, ala Henry Mancini

Interestingly by 1967, in the score for Fitzwilly, one can hear the more familiar JW sound begin to emerge more distinctly – with a quirky, playful humor and imaginative scoring, portending a style which would later characterize scores such as Home Alone. And in Heidi, the glorious soaring melodies on massed violins become more evident. I hear bits of what would later inhabit the soundworld of ET, Jurassic Park and, especially, Hook.
 
Discs 4 – 7 take us to the 70s – pre-Spielberg (i.e pre-Jaws)
On disc 4, Cinderella Liberty (1973) is completely different from just about everything else, with a decidedly 70s feel, complete with boisterous vocals and harmonica solos. One would never guess this is John Williams, and unsurprisingly, it wasn’t really to my liking. The next score for The River unfortunately jumps out of chronological sequence, ahead to 1984, instantly transporting us to the familiar, richly orchestrated JW scores we know and love. Both of these films come from Mark Rydell, which is why they are (logically) paired together on this disc.
 
Disc 5 – “Disaster Trilogy” (Earthquake, The Poseidon Adventure and Towering Inferno). All great stuff which begins to display the power of the brass which predominates so many JW scores to come. The astute JW admirer will already know these were composed by him, but I suspect many will find this a surprise.
 
The same goes for Disc 6 – relatively unknown JW scores, including an amazing, stylistically varied one for a film by Clint Eastwood (The Eiger Sanction), and 2 short excerpts for Robert Altman (The Long Goodbye – 3 jazz nightclub sequences; and Images – one of his stranger creations with some eerie orchestral effects not unlike that heard later in Close Encounters).
 
Disc 7 is a collection of “Westerns” – including The Cowboys, which is not just the famous concert overture everyone knows, but a complete film score for a John Wayne movie. Inexplicably, it is the familiar Overture played by the Boston Pops which is included here (and nothing else) rather than excerpts from the actual soundtrack. (Sigh...) The majority of the disc is taken up with soundtrack excerpts from The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing and The Missouri Breaks. Frankly, I would much rather have had something from The Cowboys than Cat Dancing, which isn’t JW at his finest (and sounds absolutely nothing like a Western).
 
Then we get 5 CDs of several familiar scores from Spielberg films. Starting with a disc of music from Jaws I & II, followed by various excerpts from the original soundtrack recordings for ET, Always, and all 4 Indiana Jones movies. We also get the complete original soundtrack albums for Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List. There are some conspicuous omissions from this period though, including one of my favorites, Hook (other than the short Flight to Neverland in the slick DG/Dudamel/LA concert recording of it), The Lost World, and Saving Private Ryan.

Even fan favorites such as Close Encounters, Star Wars Trilogy, Superman and The Witches of Eastwick are severely underrepresented – appearing only by way of meager, truncated concert suites played by the Boston Pops on Disc 1. (Incredibly, the original Star Wars – surely his most recognizably famous and popular film score of all time – is allotted just 2 tracks.) I understand not everything could be included, but I do wish more were here – especially considering what they give us instead on Disc 18 (more below).
 
Disc 13 – excerpts from the 3 “American” Oliver Stone movies (Born on the Fourth of July, JFK and Nixon);
Disc 14 – Ron Howard’s Far and Away (complete soundtrack album);
Discs 15 and 17 – very limited excerpts from several lesser-known one-offs for various directors. (See listings below for details);
CD 16 is the pick of the lot, containing the complete original soundtrack albums from 2 rarities, Dracula and The Fury, on a single disc. Both came immediately following Star Wars and are some of JW’s very finest music. They’re played by the London Symphony Orchestra and the late ’70s recorded sound is amazingly good. Say what you will about JW as a conductor; the LSO played their hearts out for him. 
 
So far the collection has been terrific – fascinating, informative and thoroughly enjoyable – so I’m at a loss why they would dredge up the 2019 “Across the Stars” album for Disc 18. I never understood why Williams participated in this when DG first marketed it, being little more than a gratuitous set of Muzak-y arrangements for Anne-Sophie Mutter to play. I’m dismayed to see it resurrected here when so many soundtrack scores have been omitted. Why not a disc of Harry Potter selections instead?
 
There is a rather grim sampling of JW’s Concert Works on Disc 19, beginning with 2 rather unpleasant early pieces. The first is a 1965 Prelude and Fugue for Stan Kenton’s “Los Angeles Neophonic Orchestra” and the other is the 1968 Sinfonietta for wind ensemble. Then we jump ahead to 2022, and encounter his new, very long and extraordinarily uninteresting Violin Concerto (#2), written for and performed by (you guessed it) Anne-Sophie Mutter. (I simply don’t understand his infatuation with her.) It goes on interminably for over 35 minutes and I could barely get through it all without wandering off into another room both times I tried it. (I have always wished Williams would put a little more “John Williams” in his concert works instead of determinedly trying to not sound like himself. But that’s just me.) The disc concludes with his lovely Elegy for cello and orchestra, beautifully played by Bruno Delepelaire and the Berlin Philharmonic.
 
Finally, the Songs album on Disc 20 consists mostly of pop songs composed by Williams for various artists over the course of 6 decades. They are heard here in their original vocal renditions as recorded by those artists. Interspersed among them are a few instrumental (mostly piano) arrangements by Williams, which I actually enjoyed more. (See picture below for track listing)
 
THE BOOK
Now to the enclosed book. It is impressive in its magnitude, containing both the original French and an English translation in a large font, making a rather cumbersome number of pages. But what is here is invaluable – including, especially, a fascinating interview with the 91-year-old Williams consisting of 16 intelligent, probing and thought-provoking questions. I’m surprised how much I learned from it. As ever, Williams is humble and charming, graciously giving credit to nearly everyone but himself for his successes. It is so enlightening, I thought I’d share just a few tidbits I found the most interesting.
 
 – He played piano for many Henry Mancini recording sessions, and they became close friends.
 – He took over for Bernard Herrmann after he died to score Brian de PalmasThe Fury and Hitchcock’s final film, Family Plot.
 – Of his early film scores, Williams states: “I haven’t listened to them in years. Maybe there are a few decent bars here and there.”  
 – Re: Schindler’s List: After viewing the first edit of the film, Williams refused Spielberg’s request to score it saying, “You really need a better composer for this.” 
 – When composing “serious” music outside the film studio, Williams names composer Edgar Varese as “one of his gods”. And his 1968 Sinfonietta (on Disc 19) sure sounds like it – Yikes! He goes on to claim that his Elegy for Cello and Orchestra (also on Disc 19), which is based on a theme from Seven Years in Tibet, is probably his favorite concert piece. (And mine too.)
 
The book also contains pictures and testimonials (from 2 film directors and a lyricist) and closes with a detailed track listing, complete with essential information such as recording dates, source information, orchestras and any vocalists/soloists (when appropriate). What isn’t here, curiously, is a single word about the movies (other than names of the directors) – perhaps emphasizing a dedication solely to the music. This tribute isn’t about the movies, per se; it’s about the music. 
 
In sum, this set is money well spent for any admirer of John Williams. There is a surprising amount of music here that I had not previously heard, making it invaluable, and the booklet is fascinating. I lament that more hasn’t been included (and what is here could have been more representative of his legacy). However, the production wisely concentrates on his lesser known scores (though at the expense of his more recent ones), which is important. (Is it too much to hope for a second volume which would concentrate on his later work?)

Overall, it is intelligently thought-out and logically arranged, and is a beautiful tribute to a remarkable man – a true legend.

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                                                                                                 Detailed Content listings

CD 1 – Boston Pops
(Track numbers)
1-2 Star Wars
3-5 The Empire Strikes Back
6-9 Return of the Jedi
10-11 Superman
12 Close Encounters of the Third Kind (concert suite)
 
CD 2 – Boston Pops
The Mission Theme; “If We Were in Love”; March from 1941; 3 excerpts from Jane Eyre; Liberty Fanfare; “America, the Dream Goes On”; Midway March; 2 excerpts from The Witches of Eastwick; Olympic Fanfare and Theme
 
CD 3 – Early Scores
1-3 Checkmate
4-7 How to Steal a Million
8-10 Penelope
11-16 Not with My Wife, You Don’t!
17-21 Fitzwilly
22-26 Heidi

CD 15 
1-13 Sabrina
14-16 Pete ‘n’ Tillie
17-20 Stanley & Iris

CD 17
1-5 Family Plot
6-8 Black Sunday
9-12 Monsignor
13-14 Sleepers
15-17 Seven Years in Tibet
18-21 Angela’s Ashes


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