John Williams in Berlin
The Berlin Concert Berlin Philharmonic/John Williams Bruno Delepelaire, cello. Deutsche Grammophon B0034852-02 Disc One: Total Time: 50:07 Disc Two: Total Time: 57:58 Recording: ****/**** Performance: ****/****
February 8th is the 90th birthday of film music maestro John Williams. His music is among some of the most recognizable thematic material of the latter 20th Century. Over the past few years, he has been honored with special releases of his music from the Boston Pops with Keith Lockhart and the Los Angeles Philharmonic with Gustavo Dudamel. Williams himself has released some newer albums as well, most recently with Anne-Sophie Mutter, who also appeared in Deutsche Grammophon's recording of his concert with the Vienna Philharmonic in 2020.
Film music and the Berlin Philharmonic are not entirely synonymous which made the October 2021 concert featuring John Williams a truly special event. While the orchestra had performed concert music by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and even been conducted by Andre Previn (who attended their concerts as a young child), this was the first time a film composer and conductor took the podium in a program of their own work. No doubt after his triumphant concert in Vienna, this was a logical next step. The BPO is one of the world’s great orchestras and are well-steeped in the idioms that inform much of Williams’ music. Even so, the music is not without its challenges and this program is filled with a great variety of his film music and a surprising inclusion of the Elegy for Cello and Orchestra. The trumpet section even switched out their horns for brighter American instruments which again make the orchestra sound a little different than those familiar with their classical programming. Throughout the program, one can pick up on the great attention to every detail in the music from accents and dynamics to exquisite phrasing and clean execution. The percussion section has a nice balance against the rest of the orchestra as well which helps those parts come out better.
Unlike Deutsche Grammophon’s release of the Vienna concert, this release is a memento recording that includes introductions by Williams spread throughout the album. This approach is something those who have attended his Film Nights in Boston and LA are familiar. While there is some duplication from other recent Williams concert programs on the label, there are plenty of new items here to enjoy as well, some with subtle surprises.
After an enthusiastic applause (separately indexed), things quite down for the opening Olympic Fanfare and Theme. It is a finely-paced performance that captures the richness of the hall and orchestra with some fabulous horn playing throughout. Applause burst forth almost before the last chord, but fortunately DG has edited things to help minimize this. The excerpts from Close Encounters are quite stunning in this performance. Accents are punched well and the dynamic range is even more pronounced and nuanced than Williams’ VPO performance. The more avantgarde style of this music is brought out more as well which makes the big romantic theme moment all the more moving when it suddenly appears. This is also one of the most in-tune performances of this work whose upper string writing can skew sideways from time to time. Additional unique colors in the piece also seem to come out more making this one of the first highlights from the release. The suite from Far and Away is an interesting choice but it gives the orchestra a challenge to create some Irish stylings which they do with great aplomb. What is also nice about this suite is that it gets to show off different aspects of the orchestra and requires some great rhythmic precision. Next up are the first concert performances recorded by Williams of selections from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (“Hedwig’s Theme”—notwithstanding the studio version for solo violin, “Nimbus 2000”—a fine woodwind feature, and “Harry’s Wondrous World”—with some quite interesting ritards and shaping of this piece). The first part of the program closes with the familiar Jurassic Park theme in a breezy reading, and the Superman march.
The second part of the program on disc two focuses on music from two of the big multi-picture franchises. Three selections from the adventures of Indiana Jones kick things off with the “Scherzo for Motorcycle” serving like a little overture. This version appears to have a different ending from previously-recorded versions. For contrast, we move to the beautiful “Marion’s Theme” and then of course “Raider’s March” (which also includes the central “Marion’s Theme” as well). [In his introduction to the music, he announces he is off to LA after the concert to finish the score for the fifth film.] To give the brass a break, Williams next moves to the one non-film piece on the program, the moving Elegy for Cello and Orchestra in a fine performance by Bruno Delepelaire. Then we are off to space. Among the more familiar Star Wars choices (“Yoda’s Theme”, “Throne Room & Finale”—which was part of the Skywalker Symphony release; and two of the three encores: “Princess Leia’s Theme”—some stunning high string playing id exquisite here; and the “Imperial March”—to grateful cheers) is his first recording of “The Adventures of Han” from Solo: A Star Wars Story which Williams premiered in Boston at the time of the film’s forthcoming release. These familiar pieces have their own nuances that make them engaging interpretations that stand along others on disc. The penultimate encore is one Williams likes to use a lot in concert: the “Flying Theme” from E.T.: The Extraterrestrial.
Fans will add this as a must to their collection, but this is another of those finite moments of excellence and recognition for Williams’ music by another world-class orchestra. Their unique ensemble sound adds to a touch of freshness for even the most familiar of pieces here making them their own in really wonderful ways. The concert does not feel like some straight reading of lesser material but reveals a commitment by the orchestra to put their own stamp on these pieces the way they do with any other repertoire. Some might find that not to their liking, but there are so many different things that pop out of the texture throughout that it often feels like these are new pieces all their own. Most impressive is that the stamina of the orchestra is equally remarkable. With the past year making public concerts a real privilege, The Berlin Concert gives all of us a chance to hear this music as if we were lucky enough to be there ourselves. It is obvious that the Berlin audience was thoroughly enrapt by the performances as well, you can almost sense a collective “WOW”. The commentary is tracked separately to be skipped if one prefers. A Blu-Ray edition of the concert is also available. The release comes as Williams celebrates his 90th (!) birthday but is a gift to music lovers everywhere.