"John Williams in Vienna"
John Williams: Selections from Hook – Close Encounters of the Third Kind – The Witches of Eastwick – E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial – Jurassic Park – War Horse – Jaws – Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark – Star Wars: A New Hope – Star Wars: The Last Jedi – Star Wars: Return of the Jedi – Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back – Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark
Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin), Vienna Philharmonic, John Williams (conductor)
Recording: Musikverein, Vienna, Austria (January 2020) – 75’
Deutsche Grammophon 00028948363735 (Distributed by Universal Music)
Deutsche Grammophon is lavishing much attention on two American Johns: Adams and Williams. Special editions, limited-quantity golden LP pressings, specially composed and recorded short works, and Gustavo Dudamel-led albums dedicated to each composer are only the beginning. The two older statesmen of epic music—Adams primarily for the stage, Williams for the screen—have certainly earned their accolades, and retrospectives of their careers are useful and entertaining in summing their music up. In the case of the current disc, live from the estimable Musikverein in Vienna, a traversal of mostly familiar film tunes proves to be an enjoyable journey, with only small reservations. Watching the videos of the performances, with the Viennese audience’s guiltily confessional smiles mirroring Maestro Williams’ proud grin, is even more fun.
Small questions do come to mind when listening to the album in order. The close proximity of the lengthy Close Encounters and E.T. portions seems a bit clumsy, as is the inclusion of only one excerpt including Anne-Sophie Mutter, likely to avoid drawing attention away from—you guessed it—another DG John Williams release featuring the immaculate violinist. The concertante reworking of “The Dance of the Witches” from The Witches of Eastwick (now retitled “Devil’s Dance,” perhaps a forced reference Tartini) is expertly performed, but comes across as a low-grade late-Romantic virtuoso encore piece, not quite of the quality of music Williams produced for Itzhak Perlman for the score to Schindler’s List. Listing Mutter again as a soloist on the “Raider’s March” finale is also odd, unless she’s providing the hushed eighth-note oscillations in the track’s episode of repose.
You certainly have many options to choose from in the music, from the original soundtrack albums, to two 1990s-era Williams/Boston Pops Orchestra Spielberg film collections on Sony Classical, to the at least half-dozen excerpts performed on both the Dudamel and Adams discs. Head-to-head comparison reveals that, perhaps because of proximity to Hollywood, Dudamel’s Los Angeles players have a more steady grasp of the music. The out of tune trumpet and piccolo that mar some of the Vienna tracks are pristine in L.A. (compare the opening of the Jaws excerpt or “The Raiders March”). Missing, too, is some of the magic that can happen when this music is dressed up in the studio, such as the Disney-esque wordless choir that makes the “Theme” from Jurassic Park even more lush and cinematic.
Deutsche Grammophon wants you to invest as much capital in their Williams project as they did, but in reality compiling your own anthology from the myriad options available on streaming will likely yield better results. However you choose to listen to this music, you will undoubtedly smile, sing along, and reminisce many times. Given the current state of the world, what could be better?
Marcus Karl Maroney