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GREAT FILM FANTASIES (2006)

 

Music from the 6 STAR WARS films, the 3 HARRY POTTER films, and THE LORD OF THE RINGS Trilogy

16 Tracks (Playing Time = 61:48)

Performed by the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, conducted by Erich Kunzel. Also features members of the Cincinnati May Festival Chorus, Robert Porco conductor. Produced by Robert Woods. Recorded in Music Hall, Cincinnati, Ohio, September 9 and 13, 2005. Engineered by Michael Bishop. Edited by Todd Brown. Liner Notes by Richard E. Rodda. Art Direction and design by Anilda Carrasquillo.

Telarc 80664

Rating: ***1/2

 

If anyone could make a recording of John Williams’ music from STAR WARS besides the composer, it would be Erich Kunzel. Telarc’s latest Cincinnati Pops release opens with one of the best performances of the “Main Theme” from the STAR WARS franchise that you are likely to hear. In fact, it rivals one by Williams recorded for Sony with the London Symphony Orchestra several years back. From the opening bars to the tagged on concert ending, it becomes obvious how much the orchestra loves this music. That love translates into a disc that really makes the best listening experience you are likely to get apart from the film scores themselves.

The performances are not just carbon copies of the originals, but performances that are extremely well-informed by them and coupled with a long familiarity of the music itself, especially for the selections from the original trilogy. While listening, the tracks become more than just another rehash of the same music, it becomes some of the finest music making you will hear for these individual pieces. Throughout I could not believe that this was not the LSO.

The only real track that is less successful is the concert arrangement of “Cantina Band” but then it is harder to make work. Kunzel and the Pops include a transition that sounds a little different from the original, but it makes the most of the influences and the intended homage to classic big band music that this piece was in the film. It is the most pop-ish track and purists may likely skip over it in the future. The opening choral declamation in “Duel of the Fates” sounds a bit too arty at first and a bit to forward in the sound picture. This sounds better once the orchestra enters. Still, the one thing interesting about this version is the clarity of the wind writing. The brass seem to be a bit tired in some exposed sections, though what they lack briefly in energy they seem to make up for in enthusiasm. It would be remiss though to not point out a few bad blurts in some fairly exposed spots. The piece just does not seem to work as well as the others. “Anakin’s Theme” appears to be an edited, shorter version of that found on the soundtrack album. It moves a bit too quickly in spots but musically is as well-shaped as the earlier tracks. “Across the Stars” is an arrangement with a tacked on ending. (It is the same arrangement as that on the “Epics” release.) It also feels a bit rushed but that may just be the arrangement. “ Battle of the Stars” receives its first domestic recording here. The Pops does a fine job here as well and the recording is superb. The choral work, while fine still needs some tweaking but that is not to fault the choral performance. Both here and in “Duel of the Fates” there still needs to be some adjusting for future recordings. In concert the situation may not be as pronounced as it feels here. It has more to do with the imaging of the chorus in comparison to the original recordings. On its own, the performances are musically valid and otherwise enjoyable.

The first ten tracks cover most of the popular themes from all six STAR WARS films. Missing is the “Han Solo and the Princess” music and “The Asteroid Field.” The selections tend to stick to primary character themes with the exception of “Cantina Band.” Other wise there are concert versions of the Jedi theme in the opening track, Princess Leis’s theme (gorgeous solo work throughout), Darth Vader’s theme (i.e., “The Imperial March”), Luke and Leia’s theme, and Anakin’s theme. The “Duel of the Fates,” “Across the Stars,” and “ Battle of the Heroes” allow you to hear how these other important themes have been expanded or hinted at as well. The only real unusual thing is that the choices appear in the order that the films did instead of in the actual story order. This does allow the section to end though with the climactic battle sequence from THE REVENGE OF THE SITH.

The music from HARRY POTTER continues with a selection from each of the films that Williams scored. There are interesting choices here as well. The set begins with “ Harry’s Wondrous World” one of the standouts from HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE. (“Hedwig’s Theme” was on an earlier Pops compilation.) “The Chamber of Secrets” track from the second film forms the centerpiece that concludes with the delightful waltz for Aunt Marge from HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN. They are the equals of the originals. Music from the latest Harry Potter film is absent which is unfortunate but the recordings were made in September before the score was likely available.

Since most will pick this disc up for the STAR WARS music, the inclusion of the music from the LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY will be filler. It makes for great pops-style music trying to stay faithful to the original. “May It Be” is the primary source for the music from THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING and additional themes fill out the track, which is the same arrangement from an earlier Pops release, though it appears to have been re-recorded for this release. “The Hornburg” from THE TWO TOWERS seems like an odd choice but fits nicely between the thematic compilation track and “The Ride of the Rohirrim” from THE RETURN OF THE KING opening with thematic motives that flow out from the end of “The Hornburg.” It makes for a brief excursion into a score that we can hope these forces will explore in more detail.

As with the selections by Williams, it is obvious that there is a commitment to these pieces and scores of a high caliber. Even the arrangements are more than just readthroughs of pop music. It is what separates the CPO orchestra from many pops recording orchestras. All but the most ungrateful will enjoy these performances too. The selections appear to be the composer arrangements for all but those from THE LORD OF THE RINGS and “Across the Stars” from ATTACK OF THE CLONES. These are artfully arranged by Joseph Price.

The important thing to keep in mind throughout the recording is that this is how an orchestra actually sounds unlike some of the Hollywood recording techniques that can make smaller string sections sound huge. I personally could have used a larger, fuller sound from the cello and double bass section.

It is a mark of John Williams’ music that it communicates and touches the heart and mind in practically any guise however. Kunzel and the Pops provide premiere recordings of a number of the concert versions from these scores. It makes a great companion disc for those who have been able to catch Kunzel with various orchestras conducting the 40 some odd minutes of music from the STAR WARS films.

Purists can quibble, but taken on its own, this latest Telarc release is one of the best film music compilations you will likely hear this year.

--Steven A. Kennedy, 27 March 2006

Comments regarding this review can be sent to this address: stev4uth@hotmail.com


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