DG has really been making a feast out of John Williams in recent years. There was the 2-disc live concert from Dudamel in L.A. Then Anne-Sophie Mutter's concert of easy-listening arrangements last year, and now this one with the maestro himself. All of this coming from DG. I sense there is money to be made in the John Williams name!
Looking at this latest disc...I have to wonder what it is with DG's endless infatuation with Anne-Sophie Mutter. Is she really that big of a star that she becomes the draw for these John Williams albums? Their first venture, Across the Stars, was star-power marketing at its worst - with syrupy elevator Muzak arrangements made just for her. And as if we didn't get our fill of her, DG brings her back again for this album, for one more track - a super-star solo (!) in Devil's Dance from The Witches of Eastwick. OK; it's not bad. At least it's not a sleepy Muzak arrangement. Mr. Williams has expanded it into a rather effective mini-concertpiece for violin and orchestra (although I much prefer the original soundtrack version). But, Mutter's playing of it is head-scratching. She starts off gang-busters - aided by an alarming boost in the volume level and a ridiculously spotlit microphone placement, thrusting her well out in front of the orchestra. But a minute in, she slams on the brakes and slows down the tempo - apparently realizing she can't play it all that fast. And a minute later, she slows it down some more! And John Williams, ever the consummate professional, does his very best to follow her and drags his orchestra down with her. I can just envision him looking over at her and shaking his head wondering what she's doing. This might have been a real treat if they had let the Vienna Phil's concertmaster play it.
Then there's DG's production. With her one little solo lasting just under 6 minutes, the booklet is nonetheless an embarrassment of Mutter-adoration. Pictures of her playing her fiddle begin on page 4, and continue throughout the booklet. We get a 2-page centerfold spread of her in front of the orchestra (as if in a major violin concerto) on pgs. 8/9; another similar centerfold on pgs. 16/17; single full-page shots on pg. 24; AND yet another one on the back cover! She's also featured in a big picture inside the fold-out cardboard CD enclosure where it appears she's wiping away a tear! One would think this was her triumphant debut at Carnegie Hall with a world premier violin concerto. They even go so far as to list her as featured on the final track (Raiders of the Lost Ark). Why? There is absolutely zero violin solo passagework. The booklet "clarifies" she's merely playing along with the first violin section there. Give me a break.
Fortunately, the rest of the disc is pure John Williams. And mercifully, original scores and soundtrack suites have been used. I am thrilled for him that he was given the opportunity to conduct one of the finest orchestras in the world. The booklet tells us the orchestra was pleased to venture into unfamiliar territory. But...
That being said, it all sounds a bit tired. Or perhaps serious is a kinder word. Leading an orchestra which lacks experience in this genre and thus not invigorating it with their own inherent feel for it, Mr. Williams is, for the very first time, beginning to sound his age. Tempos are consistently on the slow side and this sounds very much "symphonic". And grandiose. But not terribly "cinematic". It lacks the sheer verve and exhilaration we are used to hearing in these scores. This certainly isn't a festive Boston Pops concert! And it sounds nothing like a live event (thanks in part to DG's editing - more on this below). But it is gloriously played. The familiar Vienna Philharmonic's burnished brass shine; and the silky violins sing ever so sweetly. And they play with a precision of articulation (but not necessarily of ensemble) that Dudamel's LA Phil can't match on their live recording of this music. But it's just so heavy. It sounds, well, Germanic.
Unfortunately, DG's recorded sound doesn't help. Other than the outrageous boost in volume and presence for Devil's Dance, noted above, the remaining tracks set the orchestra back within a huge, rather swampy acoustic. There is also a lot of unnecessary spotlighting - the horns for example; and the first desk of 1st violins (which is weird); and the flutes here and there. I'm sure the engineers were simultaneously trying to mitigate audience noise while retaining some sense of presence and focus. They were very successful with the former - they have completely eliminated the cheers and wild applause evidenced on the YouTube video of the live concert. But that does tend to further diminish the sense of occasion. And the resultant sound palette suffers - which is simply too reverberant and heavy for this music.
There are highlights, though, namely Imperial March from The Empire Strikes Back - which is awesomely effective here. At this tempo, the sheer weight and power of the deep brass and low strings make this as menacing as you'll ever hear it. Just compare it to Dudamel's slick read-through in LA and you'll immediately hear the difference.
So we have a bit of a mixed bag. While it's a triumph for Mr. Williams to lead this concert, it's not a very good recording. And DG's glossy marketing of Mutter degrades it. But I suppose they have to do whatever necessary to turn a profit on it. And I, for one, did actually purchase this CD. But, frankly, I will probably never listen to it again. When in the mood for John Williams, I will turn to every other recording he has ever made of his music (on Philips and SONY) for a more satisfying movie-music experience. And better recorded sound too.
There is also a blu-ray video release of the live concert from which the CD recording is derived. I have not seen it, but I have viewed several selections which are available on YouTube. It is by far the better option to fully appreciate this Vienna concert.
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