Williams: Across the Stars (CD review)

Music of John Williams. Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin; John Williams, Recording Arts Orchestra of Los Angeles. DG B0030629-02.

If I had to guess which orchestral music of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries would survive into the twenty-second century and beyond, I'd put my money on the film scores of John Williams being among them.

Here, Mr. Williams conducts some of his better-known works to accompany violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, largely in special adaptations for violin and orchestra made by Williams just for Ms. Mutter. How successful the music is in their new arrangements may depend on how familiar you already are with the original film scores and how attached you are to them. Arranged for Ms. Mutter, they can come across as somewhat dewy-eyed to some listeners while being downright inspirational to others. For me, they were pleasantly charming, if fairly lightweight and sometimes schmaltzy.

The Recording Arts Orchestra under the direction of Mr. Williams appears to understand Ms. Mutter's relatively gentle, lyrical, romantic approach to these tunes, and their accompaniment remains buoyant and breezy throughout. Mr. Williams seemed to tailor-make these new arrangements to Ms. Mutter's style, or at least to her style as represented here.

"In discussing this idea, we both (Williams and Mutter) realized that I had adapted only one or two of these pieces for solo violin and orchestra, and that the remainder of the chosen material would have to be newly developed and orchestrated to complete her album. Because the opportunity to write for a great virtuoso always presents an energizing and exciting opportunity, I set about this project with great enthusiasm. Truly, this endeavor has been a particular joy to me." --John Williams

Here's a list of the album's contents:
  1. "Rey's Theme" from Star Wars: The Force Awakens
  2. "Yoda's Theme" from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
  3. "Hedwig's Theme from Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (or Sorcerer's Stone in the US)
  4. "Across the Stars" from Star Wars: Attack of the Clones
  5. "Donnybrook Fair" from Far and Away
  6. "Sayuri's Theme" from Memoirs of a Geisha
  7. "Night Journeys" from Dracula
  8. "Theme" from Sabrina
  9. "The Duel" from The Adventures of Tintin
10. "Luke and Leia" from Star Wars: Return of the Jedi
11. "Nice to be Around" from Cinderella Liberty
12. "Theme" from Schindler's List

Anne-Sophie Mutter
Ms. Mutter's tone is silky and smooth, of course, perfectly matching Mr. Williams's silky smooth arrangements. It's all a little dreamy, to be sure, but it's mostly enjoyable. "Yoda's Theme," for instance, seems more ethereal than we might have expected, especially in the opening passage. This approach works especially well in "Hedwig's Theme," as well as the various love themes. Not so much in the more adventurous music, which has some of the life sucked out of it.

If I had to pick a favorite track, I'd say "Night Journeys" from Dracula (the  1979 version with Frank Langella, for which I had forgotten Williams did the music). Here, Ms. Mutter's violin commands a melodramatic score that perfectly fits the melodrama of the story.

Having heard most of this material in its original form, I can't say Mr. Williams's new adaptations or Ms. Mutter's virtuoso playing improve on things. Yes, some of it is downright syrupy, but it is different and certainly none of it does any harm to the genuine article. Fans of Ms. Mutter will no doubt adore it. Fans of Mr. Williams may wonder what the fuss is about.

I should add, too, that not only is the music rather pop-oriented, the album follows another well-worn tradition of the pop-music industry: It's relatively short. That is, the playing time is rather brief: twelve selections at about fifty-five minutes.

Producer Bernhard Guttler and engineer Shawn Murphy recorded the music in April 2019 at the Sony Pictures Studios, Culver City, CA. According to a booklet note, this was the very location "where, decades earlier, such iconic scores as The Wizard of Oz, Singin' in the Rain and Doctor Zhivago were recorded." So, there's a long film history here. Like Ms. Mutter's playing, the sound is silky and smooth, the violin never too forward, and the orchestra spread out behind and around her (well, OK, maybe too spread out in a cinematic sort of way). Instruments in the orchestra are not particularly well placed, a lot of them appearing to come at us rather haphazardly from here and there around the sound stage. Nevertheless, the violin is well detailed and well positioned, as I say, and always sounds natural, never shrill.


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

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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 Jon 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.

Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa