Cincinnati Pops Orchestra (Kunzel) – Great Film Fantasies

Cincinnati Pops Orchestra (Kunzel) – ‘Great Film Fantasies’ An SACD review by Mark Jordan

In recent years, John Williams has written some concert pieces not connected with his extensive film scoring career. But if he wants concert immortality, then he need look no further than his music from George Lucas’ ‘Star Wars’ series. If he would arrange these into an effective concert suite (as opposed to the general selections now available), then we would have a wonderful concert suite (or two) on our hands. We have parts of one or more such suites on this new hybrid multichannel Super Audio CD from Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops on Telarc, but not everything passes the final cut. The music Williams seems to have been born to write is the opening title for the original ‘Star Wars’ (as it will always be to those of us old enough to have had our minds blown by seeing it when it first came out; it is now known by the catchy title ‘Episode IV: A New Hope’). Indeed, the first four tracks on this disc make a nice quasi-symphony. The music for the main titles of ‘A New Hope’ serves as an expansive, inspiring opening, the tender portrait of ‘Princess Leia’ is a fine slow movement, the rollicking ‘Cantina Band’ makes a joyous scherzo, and the ‘Imperial March’ stands as a pulse-pounding finale, albeit a rather dour one. Perhaps even two or three such symphonic suites could be arranged from Williams’ music. The separation might serve well, as several of the cuts for the prequels include chorus, whereas all the original scores for ‘Episodes IV’ through ‘VI’ are purely orchestral. This disc rather forestalls any concept of narrative coherence in these selections by putting the music from the original films (which happen later) first, and music for the later prequels (which happen earlier) after the sequels. (Are you following this? There will be a quiz.) Setting aside Williams’ original sound track recordings as an obvious benchmark, the only direct comparison I have to the first three tracks in the Kunzel recording is the same numbers from the grand recording made by Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic for Decca in the late 1970’s (a recording now available on multiple compact discs, though not every version in Decca’s catalogue includes all the music originally recorded!).

For the ‘Main Theme’ from ‘A New Hope’, Mehta is romantic and grand. He starts a little under tempo in order to surge forward to faster tempo later in the movement. Typical of this gregarious conductor, the performance is more impressive in the grandiose, swashbuckling parts than in the more introspective parts. The Decca recording features fairly close-up colorful sound, without a lot of atmosphere, certainly much less so than the Telarc, though in the end Mehta captures the youthful spirit a little more vividly than Kunzel, who is conversely more classical in approach. Kunzel favors a brisk, almost militaristic tempo, with less sense of adventure, but a greater sense of purpose and forward momentum. Sometimes he really is a shade too efficient in the faster parts, but on the other hand, he is more touching in the quiet parts than Mehta, such as at 1:13 into the cut when the composer’s vision suddenly seems to pull back into a wide, quietly awesome view of the immensity of space, with innumerable stars twinkling in the distance.

Mehta starts ‘Princess Leia’ anxiously, then relaxes into a slow tempo with rarified atmosphere. There is a gorgeous horn solo, with more personality than the Cincinnati player’s contribution, though the comparison reverses itself with the flute solo. The Los Angeles strings are less creamy than the Cincinnatians, but they are on the other hand more ardent. In addition to the creaminess of those strings, Kunzel’s rendition is notable for its sense of delicacy and flow.

For the ‘Cantina Band’ music, Mehta turns direction over to Jules Chaikin, who directs a reduced band in a very crisp and jazzy performance of the music. It is a hot take, in fact it may be a notch too hyped-up, compared to the original soundtrack. Fun though it is, the big problem with it is that close-up miking gives it a completely different soundstage from the rest of the Decca recording, made in the lively acoustic of Royce Hall. Furthermore, instead of having a concert ending, the L.A. recording fades out before the reprise of the tune is even finished. Kunzel’s version uses a more-expanded symphonic band scoring (plus rhythm section) recorded in the same hall, thus keeping it rooted in the same sound-world as the rest of the recording. This larger scale still works nicely, though Kunzel’s approach is more laid-back and suave, with much less prominent drums. There is some highly characterized solo and sectional playing here, achieving a great swing band feel. Best of all, it includes a concert ending which brings it to a satisfying close. I have trouble playing this track without immediately reaching for the repeat button!

I would like to have heard Kunzel include the ‘Throne Room and End Title’ music from ‘A New Hope’, which Mehta included in his recording. It does, after all, bring the first epic to its thrilling conclusion. But, alas, Kunzel heads off to different material, though some of it is quite essential listening in its own right. In ‘The Imperial March’ from ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, the range and sense of space in the Telarc recording help create and sustain the ominous atmosphere of this dark march. Kunzel’s basic classicism fits the briskly military feel of this music.

Kunzel gamely gives it his all in ‘Yoda’s Theme’ from ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, but, unfortunately, this is simply not a terribly interesting musical portrait. Too bad the eccentric little Jedi master did not provoke something more than this sub-Holstian noodling from Williams; though, granted, painting a philosophical character is a much harder sell than an action hero or romantic lead. Kunzel has greater success with ‘Luke and Leia’ from ‘Return of the Jedi’ as Williams develops the Princess Leia theme into a tender yet very uncertain and ambivalent movement. Moments of more flowing certainty roll through, but the uneasy undercurrents always return. Such moments of symphonic extrapolation and development from earlier thematic material put Williams’ film music into a sophisticated category not reached by most of his peers. Frankly, such sophistication is necessary to adequately evoke an epic, and in his finest moments Williams has it.

The ‘Duel of the Fates’ from ‘The Phantom Menace’ is not at all bad, even if it isn’t one of Williams’ finest moments. He provides a dark, energetic, and mechanistic scherzo with choral interjections in what sounds like one of George Lucas’ made up alien languages. The main problem here is that the choral part recorded is in closer perspective than expected for a concert hall, somewhat skewing the soundstage. But that’s not a major quibble. It just makes what is already a loud and overbearing track that much louder and more overbearing.

Anakin’s Theme’ from ‘The Phantom Menace’ is better music. It is an effective portrait of the flawed antihero. The music is lyrical, yet ambivalent and unsettled. Particularly effective is how Williams foreshadows later plot developments by insinuating the melodic seeds of the ‘Imperial March’ into this music. It isn’t especially memorable from a melodic point of view, but it is nonetheless effective at setting the emotional scene, with or without the film images.

The next cut comes to us in an arrangement by Joseph Price. It is the love music for Anakin and Padmй from ‘Attack of the Computer Graphics’ – oh, I’m terribly sorry, that’s a typo – I meant, of course, ‘Attack of the Clones’. (I simply can’t imagine what caused me to mis-type that!) The track’s title is ‘Across the Stars’, and it is suitably cinematic music for the star-crossed lovers. Though it is hardly Williams’ most original cut, it has a compelling harmonic hook that sells it emotionally and lodges it firmly in the memory. Kunzel’s selection closes with the ‘Battle of the Heroes’ from ‘The Revenge of the Sith’. It is motivically related to the ‘Imperial March’ and the ‘Duel of the Fates’, featuring like the latter a wordless chorus, though it doesn’t play a crucial role here. It is essentially a dark moto-perpetuo scherzo, this one more apocalyptic than any of the earlier ones.

Next the disc moves on to Williams’ music from the first three Harry Potter films (for some reason he did not score the fourth, and I’ve not heard if he will return for any of the future installments). We start with ‘Harry’s Wondrous World’ from ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’, and ‘wondrous’ is an apt word. Here John Williams puts on the cloak of Vaughan Williams, capturing something of the marrow-deep Englishness of that master’s music, whilst keeping the flavor of mystic arcana wrapped around the music, which in quick though deftly balanced episodes presents the main characters and events of the story to come. ‘The Chamber of Secrets’ from ‘Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets’ is next, and it is one of Williams’ finest orchestral scherzos. Odd and curious fragments start the music, gradually coalescing into an ominous, sideways-creeping theme, very aptly evoking the hordes of spiders seen at one point during the film. The composer takes more pages here from the Vaughan Williams playbook, using parallel-chord harmonies and modal shifts that match the anachronistically antique feel of the Potter films, despite their settings in modern times. The piquant harmonies and eerie registrations (with most instruments playing extremely high or extremely low) briefly calls to mind some of the film music of Danny Elfman, except that Williams deploys this bag of composer’s tricks with greater subtlety and imagination. Lastly, we get an insubstantial closing with ‘Aunt Marge’s Waltz’ from ‘Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban’, an amusingly awkward piece а la Prokofieff, which illustrates the very funny scene where Harry’s “muggle” (non-magical, for those of you who have somehow missed this cultural phenomenon) aunt insults Harry until he loses his temper and casts a spell that swells her up like a blimp and sends her flying across the city skyline. The music is witty, though pretty lightweight as a closer to this suite. It even briefly sounds at one point as if it is on the verge of breaking out into Rossini’s Overture to ‘La Gazza Ladra’ perhaps a calculated inside-joke from Williams to his classical fans. Nice enough, but more music from the Potter films would have made a wonderful SACD in its own right. More, please!

This disc is not billed as a John Williams collection, however, because not everything here is by Williams. The disc closes with a suite from Howard Shore’s music for the ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy. Shore is certainly no slouch either when it comes to film music, having composed scores for such films as ‘Dogma’, ‘Ed Wood’, ‘Philadelphia’, and ‘Silence of the Lambs’. The opening track here (arranged by Joseph D. Price) features the main themes Shore wrote for ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’, as well as the melody of the song which Enya wrote and performed for the movie (‘May It Be’). Though several of Shore’s themes are quite effective, what is really missing here is a composer’s hand in the arrangements. Instead we get a medley that ricochets from highlight to highlight including lame synthesized harpsichord and clinking anvil to match various scenes from the film. In this setting, the music doesn’t stand on its own two feet, serving only as a reminder of favorite scenes for fans of the films. In ‘The Hornburg’ from ‘The Two Towers’, Price’s arrangement stays more focused, and is more impressive for it. There is still a certain degree of highlighting as opposed to the through-composing we get in the John Williams scores discussed above. But at his finest, Shore is quite impressive, displaying a darker, more apocalyptic side than we see in the more classical music Williams writes. The suite closes with ‘The Ride of the Rohirrim’ from ‘The Return of the King’. Again, the music isn’t bad, but the arrangement is. Suffice it to say that there’s a reason composers rarely try to cover the wildest extremes of tempo, mood, and dynamics in a two-and-a-half minute piece. And that reason is this: It doesn’t work. At least, it doesn’t work unless you’re a very rare genius like Webern or Janacek. Howard Shore doesn’t pretend to be that rare of a genius, and his arranger does him a gross disservice by trying to force him into that niche. Kunzel and company perform these selections with commitment, but to what end? Stick with the film or the soundtrack for now until someone makes a true concert version of this music.

Telarc’s recorded sound is predictably fine, with the multichannel mix putting plenty of sonic information in the surround channels in order to draw the listener into a cosmic and atmospheric sound-world. Cincinnati’s Music Hall always gives a sense of huge, open space, and nowhere could this be more appropriate than in John Williams’ music from ‘Star Wars’. The more intimate ‘Harry Potter’ music is slightly adrift in this acoustic, but Howard Shore’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ music benefits from the epic sense of space. The high-resolution recording gives us a fine brass rasp, especially in the saucy interjections during the ‘Cantina Band’ track. The Cincinnati strings have always tended more toward creamy refinement than raw power, and the brass do overpower them in places, but Telarc’s recording and mix help the strings by catching a strong bounce in the surround channels. Indeed, the amount of detail combined here with scope and power make one wonder when Telarc will unleash Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops on a multichannel recording of Holst’s ‘The Planets’. Kunzel might not be the ultimate conductor for the spiritual side of that work, but he could be guaranteed to treat it as the serious music it is, just as he brings focus and dedication to this music. The amount of bounceback in the surround channels does have a bit of a diffusion effect in terms of impact. The stereo layer of the high-resolution DSD recording offers the richness of SACD with the impact of two channel presentation, though I for one would miss the sense of being inside the space in this epic music. The Red Book stereo layer of this hybrid disc is naturally quite fine, though the aggressive impact of Williams’ ‘Star Wars’ score can become a trifle wearying to the ear in regular 16-bit resolution, especially for those of us who have become enamored of high-resolution sound. But those who are used to the flatter, glassier sound of standard compact discs will find this an excellent recording.

In the end, this is a fine presentation of music that deserves to be heard. The only deal-breaker for the potential customer is the relative randomness of the ‘Star Wars’ selections, the briefness of the ‘Harry Potter’ suite, and the ineffective highlights of the ‘Lord of the Rings’ music. But to hear this music in multichannel sound – and you should – this disc offers enormous satisfaction.