The Spielberg/Williams Collaboration Part III
by Mikko Ojala
The legendary, over 40 years spanning collaboration between the director Steven Spielberg and the composer John Williams has yielded indelible cinematic classics where sight and sound combine in perfect union to create an unforgettable experience. Now in honour of the maestro’s 85th birthday, Sony Masterworks is releasing a four disc set celebrating the whole career spanning friendship and partnership in film that includes the two previous best-selling albums exploring the duo’s work (the 1991 The Spielberg/Williams Collaboration and the 1995 Williams on Williams: The Classic Spielberg Scores – that together span from Sugarland Express to Schindler’s List) along with a CD full of new re-recordings, and a DVD documentary.
The third disc of the set, which this review will focus on, is a brand new recording done last year that primarily covers the last 20 odd years of the relationship, starting from 1997’s Amistad and ending with their latest film The BFG from 2016. In the intervening years the composer has created numerous concert suites and versions of this music but a small fraction of them have been recorded in any form before now so the disc boasting such an enticing programme is a wonderful treat for any Williams fan. There are a few notable omissions as The Lost World: Jurassic Park, A.I.- Artificial Intelligence and War of the Worlds are conspicuously absent but since the running time of a single disc is certainly too short to present all the musical bounties packed in the past two decades of this collaboration I guess this is understandable and can be forgiven.
This time around the recording has been done with the Performing Arts Orchestra of Los Angeles, the California State University, Fullerton, University Singers and Los Angeles Children’s Chorus at the UCLA Royce Hall where the acoustics seem to produce a very clear and precise sound. And since the ensemble is comprised of the local LA musicians, most of who usually play on the soundtracks of the inestimable maestro, the performances under Williams’ baton are top notch, focused and energetic.
The new disc features many suites and pieces written with prominent solo parts and Williams has picked quite a roster of performers, among them his frequent collaborators from the world of film music recordings Dan Higgins (saxophone), Michael Valerio (bass) as well as Williams’ frequent first cello Stephen Erdody, Heather Clark (flute) and Don Foster (clarinet). To further bolster the already acclaimed ensemble are Thomas Hooten, the principal trumpet of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the talented Austrian percussionist Martin Grubinger, who all bring their considerable talents to bear on this recording.
The album starts off in overture style with a swashbuckling piece ‘The Adventures of Mutt’ from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. While the film might be the weakest of the bunch the score has numerous highlights that touch upon several film genres and this piece is a nod to the classic swashbucklers of the yesteryear as it whirls, twists and turns through the orchestra in an athletic and energetic romp for strident strings, fanfaric brass, crashing cymbals and comedic woodwinds and while the interpretation is a tad slower in tempo than the film counterpart there is a great jaunty sense of energy here, the feel of the bustling piece between humour and heroism with even hints of the Raiders March hidden inside.
The choral paean ‘Dry Your Tears Afrika’ from the 1997 film Amistad appears at the end of the film for the liberation of the slaves and almost literally sings freedom here through the combined forces of the California State University Singers and the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus that raise their clear voices in a triumphant chanting praise to which the suitably spacious reverb of the concert hall contributes its additional lustre. Williams’ writing melds together the African choral influences and the Americana orchestral writing and includes here the concert coda that concludes the piece on an even more uplifting note than on the soundtrack album.
The most recent of Spielberg/Williams works, the The BFG, is afforded a lengthiest track on the disc, titled simply ‘The BFG’. The suite has been basically adapted from the end credits of the score and runs the gamut of the various themes from the score but doesn’t really stray too far from the source material, the music sounding like a second cousin to the composer’s efforts in the Harry Potter franchise where tender emotion alternates with animated childish whimsy, and the orchestrations highlight the flutes and woodwinds throughout.
Williams reverential 2012 score for the presidential biopic Lincoln is represented on the CD by the Americana hymn theme ‘With Malice Toward None’ that the composer seems most strongly identify with the president himself. Over last few years the maestro has adapted his music from the film into various concert settings and for different events, and here were hear a solo trumpet and orchestra rendition featuring the superb clarion clear solos of Thomas Hooten, the principal trumpet of the LA Philharmonic. Hooten brings out both the noble and the poignant qualities of the piece, the deliberately hymn-styled melody emerging slowly from the almost bugle-styled trumpet calls full of yearning Americana mood that is both quintessentially Williams and thoroughly beautiful.
After such solemnity we return to a bit of adventure with another energetic scherzando in ‘The Duel’ from the The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn that has the insistent motoric figures driving it as the orchestra makes sword fighting stabs and leaps, musical feints and false stops in this playful balletic piece. The composer has been fond of performing it in concerts in recent years, usually accompanied by a synchronized montage from the famous pirate sword fights in film history. Again this piece feels very faithful in its interpretation to the original, although typically for Williams, he seems to favour an ever so slightly slower pace for one of these more hectic pieces in concert setting.
As a gossamer delicate and tender interlude we hear next ‘A New Beginning’ from Minority Report. The piece might not perhaps be entirely representative of the majority of the kinetically ferocious and nail bitingly exciting and dark Herrmann-esque neo-noir score, this piece captures the happy ending and denouement of the film in soothingly calm string tones to which the composer has deftly orchestrated some beautiful new lines for the flute section.
A definite highlight and a centerpiece of the album is the three movement suite ‘Escapades’ from Catch Me If You Can featuring Dan Higgins on saxophone, Michael Valerio on bass and another musical luminary, percussionist Martin Grubinger on vibraphone and the three gentlemen are given ample opportunities to shine throughout. The piece is one of Williams’ most popular concert suites and has been re-recorded several times and has had a growing concert hall presence around the world ever since it was published. Each of the three movements focuses on a single theme from the film which is then explored extensively:
‘Closing In’ opens the proceedings with mirthful mischief and features jazzy 1960’s swagger and finger snapping surrounding the main title theme used for the FBI investigations around Frank Abagnale, with the suspenseful, scurrying, repeating motifs clearly illustrating the chase while remaining full of fun and wit. ‘Reflections’ depicts the tragic relationship between Frank and his father and features some terrific darker bluesy colours, sweeping strings in almost film noir fashion, Dan Higgins’ heart achingly beautiful alto saxophone solos filled with powerful longing. Noteworthy also is the new extensive double bass coda Williams wrote for Michael Valerio, which is here heard recorded on CD for the first time and adds a touch of jazz improvisation feel to the movement. ‘Joy Ride’ is built around a theme that functions as a musical trigger for the various scams and hijinks of Frank on his globe-trotting adventure in the film, and Williams developed it into this jaunty and joyous concert version full of excitement and playful kinetic energy where all the soloists are given their final sparkling spotlight.
A slight deviation from the timeline of 1997-2016 is ‘Marion’s Theme’ from Raiders of the Lost Ark that now receives its first official recording in this full concert form. Williams originally penned this extended piece not in 1981 but in 2008 after the release of the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull when Steven Spielberg asked him specifically to extend the original theme since it had never had a proper concert suite prior to this. In this new version the whole theme is expanded and fully fleshed out in the fashion of the classic sweeping Hollywood love themes of old embodying both strength and fragility in equal measure and it still remains one of the most attractive romantic themes Williams has ever penned.
One particular new arrangement that didn’t quite find the mark with me on this disc is ‘Hymn to the Fallen’ from Saving Private Ryan. While I appreciate new interpretations of these classic themes and the performance itself is fine here, this version seems to chop out about two whole minutes of material from the piece and thus to my mind deprives it some of its solemn build-up and emotional crescendo and ends up feeling unduly rushed and awkward in comparison with the original.
The following piece ‘Dartmoor, 1912’ from War Horse on the other hand is a superb arrangement as it transports us to the British Isles in a lovely evocation of nature in English pastoral mode. In the suite several central themes from the score presented in the lengthy meditation that features the gracefully lyrical playing of the flautist Heather Clark, whose solo part conjures vivid and sunny bucolic imagery in its silvery tones and there is such emotion and welcoming glow to the whole piece that makes it so emblematically Williams and another highlight of the disc.
‘Viktor’s Tale’ from The Terminal is a showcase for the clarinet played nimbly by Don Foster. He skilfully navigates the devilishly challenging central solo part of the theme that depicts the main character of the film, Viktor Navorski, and his indomitable industrious optimism with some definite Eastern European colouration and jaunty folk song qualities. From the other end of the emotional spectrum comes ‘Prayer for Peace’ that is a string orchestra adaptation of ‘Avner’s Theme’ from Munich that is at the same time an impassioned plea for peace in the Middle-East and a tragic elegy for lives lost in the conflict. The strings of the Recording Arts Orchestra perform with mournful sensitivity this vintage Williams adagio that also carries the feel of a sorrowful folk melody.
As a rousing finale to the programme Williams surprisingly chose to present a single movement from his music from The Unfinished Journey that was written for a documentary on American life and history produced for the millennium New Year’s Eve celebration in Washington DC. ‘Immigration and Building’ is the soaring suitably festive opening movement of the suite that presents the optimistic and heroic main theme running through the entire work, where the brass especially is given an impressive workout and ending in an extended crescendo of blazing orchestral fireworks.
The whole album is brought to a close by a sort of encore, the second arrangement of with ‘Malice Toward None’ as a bonus track, this one written for a string orchestra. It opens with a sonorous cello introduction played by Stephen Erdody before rising to a warm string orchestra exploration of the main melody in this moving setting which fittingly brings the album to a serene end.
I am happy to say it is very easy to recommend this CD to a Williams fan and just about any film music fan discovering the composer as such re-recordings as this are a rare treat in this day and age. The new disc is definitely a worthy successor to the previous two Sony compilations and a great continuation of the series offering some of the most sought after concert versions of Williams’s music for the first time on CD, performed by a great orchestra and top soloists and conducted by the composer himself. For a new Williams fan you couldn’t find a finer overview of this composer/director collaboration than the John Williams & Steven Spielberg Ultimate Collection and even for a seasoned Williams fan The Spielberg/Williams Collaboration Part III is definitely a must buy for the above stated reasons. Apart from the single curious misstep of the truncated arrangement of ‘Hymn to the Fallen’ I feel that all the new recordings either capture the spirit of their film counterparts very well or even successfully go beyond them as the composer has extended, revised and re-orchestrated a number of pieces in a significant way which offers the listener a fresh interpretation and perspective on even these familiar pieces of music. And thus The Spielberg/Williams Collaboration Part III receives my most enthusiastic recommendation!