Movie Legends: The Music of John Barry (CD review)

Nic Raine and guest conductors, The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. RPO SP 042.

British conductor and film composer John Barry (1933-2011) began his musical career in the late Fifties and continued to write hit movie music for the next fifty-odd years, winning numerous awards and nominations in the process. The present disc is a tribute to the man, featuring longtime Barry arranger Nic Raine and others leading the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in some of Barry’s most-familiar work.

But here’s the thing: Barry’s most-celebrated music is all the stuff he wrote for the James Bond series, starting with an arrangement of Monty Norman’s theme for Dr. No and continuing with Bond scores for the succeeding twenty-five years. Yet there is no Bond music whatsoever on this tribute album. None. Zero. Zilch. There are eighteen tracks from eighteen separate films, but not a single Bond in sight. I tried to find an answer to this enigma in the accompanying booklet, but no dice. There is only a little information on the RPO but nothing about the music or its selection. I can only guess, therefore, that maybe producer and conductor Nic Raine decided not to include any Bond because it would be too obvious, that most Barry fans already had plenty of the man’s Bond music on disc. But, really? Not even a single track? Someone new to John Barry’s music would assume from this disc that he had nothing to do with the Bond films.

Anyway, first up on the program is Born Free, a score for which Barry won two Academy Awards. I’ve always found the music a little syrupy, but it’s all a matter of taste. The public bought a ton of it, and it’s become one of Barry’s signature tunes. Nevertheless, despite its sometimes sentimental overtones the music comes up well under Maestro Raine, who gives it a vigorous workout. I hadn't heard the music in quite some time, either, and I couldn't help hearing hints of Maurice Jarre’s Lawrence of Arabia in it.

And so it goes throughout the selections. A few favorites include The Ipcress File for its low-key jazzy arrangement; Dances with Wolves for its singing melody; King Rat for its military cadences; Zulu for its dramatic engagement; Midnight Cowboy for its bluesy melancholy; The Quiller Memorandum for its lilting rhythms; and Out of Africa for its epic scope.

The rest of the music is fine, too, although it is largely lightweight. For the John Barry fan who already owns a few discs of the composer's Bond tracks, the present selection takes us through a good representative selection of Barry's output, about sixty-eight minutes' worth. Moreover, I can’t imagine a conductor handling the music any better than Raine does, his having known and worked with Barry for as long as he did.

Nic Raine produced and Gary Thomas engineered the recordings at Angel Studios, London, in December 2012. The sound is big and bold, much as we would expect of film music. It's also somewhat "pop" sounding, meaning it's close; well, almost clinically defined; and it’s fairly dynamic (or at least loud). However, you won't get much sense of the live occasion here, much orchestral depth, hall ambience, or air. This will be of little concern to the fan of film music, though, and the recording does provide a robust listening experience.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa