I can never get enough John Williams. I have no trouble admitting he's by far my favorite living composer and I listen to his music more than any other. Fortunately, there is such an abundance of it. I can l hear much variety of his music in numerous recordings of collections and symphonic settings, outside the original soundtracks.
That being said, I'm picky about my John Williams. I am of the belief that absolutely no one does John Williams like John Williams himself. I own all his recordings made throughout the years, from the soundtracks to all the collections and compilations for Philips and SONY, etc. I also have collected just about every symphonic rendering from various other conductors and labels (Telarc, DG, Varese Sarabande, Silva, et al), as well as recent recordings from the Boston Pops on their own label (Keith Lockhart), the LA Phil (DG) and the LSO (Decca.) All are enjoyable and sit proudly on the shelf alongside those of the master himself. But ultimately John Williams knows how his music should go, and his recordings are indisputably the best.
So when I saw this 2-CD set from Prospero, a label with which I have been most impressed recently, I didn't hesitate to acquire yet another John Williams collection. It is a beefy, hard-back book style double disc production, complete with exhaustive notes about the music, the orchestra, the soloists, the conductor, the composer and recording details. I found it especially interesting reading some history and origins of John Williams's youth and musical career, some of which I did not know. One simply does not see this kind of outlay and expense from most record labels. All extremely professionally done and VERY impressive.
As to the music - Disc 1 concentrates on the big scores; Disc 2 on the more intimate sections of a film which feature soloists. At first glance, I was excited (and immensely relieved) that this isn't just a collection of the usual "greatest hits". However, they aren't entirely ignored - we get themes from Superman, Jurassic Park and the Cowboys. Slightly less famous fare too: from Raiders, it's the End Credits from Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom (which has more than enough of the famous march theme included), and from Hook, the Flight to Neverland. And the rest gets more interesting still. Four selections from three Harry Potters and two from Tintin. Stars Wars is mercifully represented not by the first film, but from VII - The Force Awakens. This actually is my least favorite of all the Star Wars scores, but it is nonetheless a welcome change from the usual suite that everybody plays.
Jumping ahead to Disc 2, solo trumpet is featured in themes from JFK and Born of the Fourth of July - gloriously played here by featured soloist Reinhold Friedrich. The familiar suite from Catch Me If You Can comes off nicely (featuring Valentine Michaud, alto saxophone), as does Paul Meyer's clarinet solo in Viktor's Tale from The Terminal. An interesting chamber ensemble plays Tintin's Opening Credits, followed by the triple woodwind choir playing Nimbus 2000 (from Harry Potter), bringing the concert to a delightful conclusion.
So that's the program. Disc 1 plays for about 65'; disc 2, a little short at just 35'. But with a total of 100 minutes on offer, averaged out it's roughly 50' per disc, and I'm more than OK with that. (Although this set is quite expensive, being an import at this point in time.)
I've waited until the end to get to the really important bits - the performances and sound. And I am absolutely thrilled to report both are great! The Lucerne-based City of Light Symphony Orchestra has been playing film music from its very first concert in the autumn of 2018. It regularly features several conductors, including Kevin Griffiths, who conducts for these recordings. They play this music as if it's in their very nature (which it obviously is) and display all the characteristics required of a John Williams score - soaring strings, rapturously singing tunes, richly colorful blend, boundless energy and resplendent brass. And Kevin Griffiths certainly understands this music. Oh, he may miss just that last ounce of flair and inspiration that Williams himself can entice out of an orchestra in his own music. But Griffiths gets very, very close. Certainly closer than Dudamel manages in his live LA Phil concert (on DG) and more even than the maestro himself could coax from the Vienna Phil (also on DG), who just don't have this music in their bones.
In the more dramatic cuts on Disc 1, Griffiths brings a touch of symphonic splendor to the music - but not too much as to weigh it down (as is sometimes the case). Tempos are spot on (i.e. vigorous), articulation is crisp, dynamics are bold, and it's all very exciting - without ever turning audacious. Disc 2 displays plenty of heartfelt musical expression, establishing an intimate atmosphere between the soloists and orchestra. The orchestral playing everywhere is effortlessly accomplished, and the music-making bursts with freshness and spontaneity and, especially on Disc 2, sensitivity. And hats off to the trumpets for playing so much of the time in the highest range and not sounding the least bit strained.
The recorded sound is very good, but not quite natural compared to the best Classical orchestral recordings. On Disc 1, it sounds like the strings are given a boost from the engineers, and there is some unnecessary highlighting throughout the orchestra. But it isn't applied all the time and isn't too distracting when it is. While this is not the most natural balance, it brings the music vividly to life and the spot-mics succeed at bringing out more orchestral details than usual without being too obvious about it.
Disc 2 is even better in this regard. It is more natural and realistic. Take, for example, the wonderous trumpet solos mentioned above. Friedrich's trumpet rings out into the hall, resonating from wall to wall, transporting the listener to the recording location. And elsewhere, the violins are simply luscious in intimate passages, with a silky, gossamer texture which is most pleasing.
Overall I couldn't be more pleased with this set - and that's actually saying a lot coming from this die hard (and sometimes jaded) mega-fan! I will conclude with singling out my favorites of the set: Disc 2 in its entirety; and from Disc 1, Duel from Tintin and the three Harry Potter selections. And speaking of - surely, the flutist deserved a special mention in the credits for the fabulous solo in Witches, Wands and Wizards (The Prisoner of Azkaban). It sounds very difficult and is played with incredible bravura. Wow! (Presumably it is played by principal flutist of the orchestra, Christian Madlener.) And ultimately, if that's the only fault I can find, then...BRAVO Prospero!