Harry Potter

  • 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 DelepelaireThen 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.

  • Massive Harry Potter Collection Highlights John Williams' Scores


    As 2018 came to a close, La La Land Records announced the release of a massive collection of music from John William’s work on the Harry Potter film series in a limited edition set of 5000 copies.  Featuring almost 8 hours of music, the new set intended to present a more complete presentation of Williams’ music from this beloved series.  Though he would only work on the first three films, his primary theme would be linked through the series.  There is no denying the power this music has with its indelible linking to this popular literary character.  This reviewer once witnessed an entire theater of children fall completely silent for the entire length of “Hedwig’s Theme” when it was played as part of the piped in music.  In concerts, that same sense of wonder captivates audiences of all ages.  One can perhaps give thanks then for those of us of the Star Wars or Superman generation having our children captivated by the music of composer we also hold dear.  Somehow it is hard to believe that this music is already nearly two decades old.

    La-La Land’s package includes a slipcase with three interior sets of multi-disc packs, one for each film.  There is a general booklet that includes all the track titles with each score also getting its own booklet of information filled with nice details about the process and development of the music.  As one might expect, each score has a host of bonuses included.  These feature trailer music (one of which introduced the world to that little celesta theme!) and similar promotional ad versions that provide some interest and are great little extras.  Film versions are identified with plenty of alternates for each score given as addendum to the regular presentation.

    The release though also gives us a chance to reflect on each of these scores whose primary releases were certainly enjoyable listens on their own.  To that end the first and third scores seem to be the strongest of the lot.  There is no denying the excellent thematic ideas that Williams hit on for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.  They indelibly linked characters and events for anyone watching the film and certainly made it a far better picture than the otherwise seemingly underwhelming story itself—though once one has waded through the whole series, there is a bit more to what we are introduced to in the first film.  William Ross was on hand to help provide assistance for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.  On the original soundtrack album, the extent of what this means was lost a bit.  There strong music for the chamber itself and interesting writing for the spider sequence worked quite well.  Of course, “Fawkes the Phoenix” is just another of Williams’ brilliant soaring ideas that has an excellent emotional punch that connects to the story.  However, when one listens through to the score on its own as presented here, it seems to tire itself out with a lot of references to the earlier score and overall ends up being less interesting.  (In some respects, it reminded this reviewer of Superman IV—though that bears more original score by Alexander Courage).  It is still worth noting William Ross’ expert work on this score as both arranger and conductor as the music is still very much Williams.  These impressions though are more likely due to the overwhelming accomplishment of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban which seems to have really inspired Williams with some of his most interesting work that includes another gorgeous flying theme (for Buckbeak), a seriously off-kilter standout cue for “The Knight Bus” (a sort of update to “Cantina Band” on a larger scale), and more of the Renaissance-like music (“Double Trouble”) adding a unique color.  Of course, there is also the delightful “Aunt Marge’s Waltz” to kick things off early on.  This particular score really becomes the jewel of this set as we get a chance to hear how the darker qualities of the story are supported by Williams in ways that parallel his colder, gray music of AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001) and Minority Report (2002).  It is the latter which seem to cast its own shadow across the third score of this Williams trilogy.

    One of the other fun little extras is a disc devoted to the Children’s Suite which is a collection of themes from the first film; in some respects, it is like a modernized Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra with different instrumental sections being used to depict the different characters.  The pieces in the suite are similar to what was published in the piano score collection of “Music from” at the time.  Williams also had put together a concert work that included a narrator and was premiered in Boston in 2008 with Lynn Redgrave.  There is was listed as a “Grand Suite” and incorporated music from across all three of his scores.  That has yet to make it to a commercial recording.

    Picking up this collection is a bit of an investment, but one that is certainly worth it for Williams fans and those who love the music from this series.  The sound quality is stellar and the way the albums have been sequenced works very well.  The notes help point out some of the key adjustments made along the way.  The result is an at times overwhelming collection of some of the composer’s finest music.  One might also say it is also an opportunity to hear how the shift from wall-to-wall scoring that overwhelms the first film has morphed into a score that becomes a part of the fabric of the third film while still retaining the composer’s own individual trademarks.  It is a gorgeous and marvelous accomplishment.