Digital Music Album Review: ‘John Williams Live in Vienna: John Williams/Wiener Philharmoniker/Anne-Sophie Mutter’

(C) 2020 Deutsche Grammophon/Universal Music Group

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

On August 14, Berlin-based Deutsche Grammophon (DG) – now part of Universal Music Group – released John Williams – Live in Vienna in digital and physical media (compact disc, compact disc + Blu-ray, and vinyl LP). This new album – as well as the filmed concert – marks the first time that Maestro Williams conducts the world-famous Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in his long and storied career as a performer, arranger, composer, and conductor. Recorded on January on January 18 & 19th, 2020, at the Musikverein Wien in Vienna, Austria, this is also the second DG recording[1] to feature German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter as a featured solo performer in performances of the five-time Academy Award-winning composer’s memorable themes from the movies, including selections from Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, the Star Wars saga, Jurassic Park, Hook, and Schindler’s List.

As I mentioned in my review of the John Williams – Live in Vienna Deluxe Edition (the one with the Blu-ray and CD), this once-in-a-lifetime concert marked the Wiener Philharmoniker’s first performance in its long history that features music composed exclusively for the movies. In the two biggest German-speaking countries (Austria and Germany), there’s a cultural bias that divides orchestral music – what most Americans call “classical music” – into two separate and often irreconcilable genres: serious music, i.e. compositions by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and Wagner; and “entertainment” music, i.e. popular music, show tunes, and movie and television themes.

And it seems that some critics and music fans in Germanophone countries, especially older ones, tend to have an “East is East, West is West, and never the twain shall meet” attitude – an attitude that Anne-Sophie Mutter is trying to change, since she was once married to Andre Previn, the late composer/conductor who spent his latter years as principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra but had, in his younger days, composed or adapted many film scores and won four Academy Awards – one less than his friend and colleague John Williams.

Considering that the Vienna Philharmonic dipped its collective toes in the waters of film music for the first time, the synergy between the composer/conductor, the featured soloist, and the orchestra was nothing short of magic, and the two performances at the Musikverein Wien – which miraculously preceded the global pandemic caused by COVID-19 by a few weeks – prove that Maestro Williams’ music not only bridges the artificial gap between the “serious” and “entertainment” genres, but that the performers of the Wiener Philharmoniker enjoyed their time together with the legendary composer/conductor, who – at the time the recording was made – was about to celebrate his 88th birthday.

As I wrote in my review of the Deluxe Edition a few weeks ago:

Of course, considering the breadth of Maestro Williams’ discography – the man has been active as a film music performer/composer/conductor since the 1950s, after all – John Williams/ Wiener Philharmoniker/ Anne-Sophie Mutter John Williams – Live in Vienna (Limited Deluxe Edition CD + Blu-ray) doesn’t present all of his iconic movie themes. Every fan of the composer will doubtlessly grouse that some of his or her favorites are not in here – I would have preferred, say, a rendition of Love Theme from Superman over Nice to Be Around from 1973’s Cinderella Liberty, or The Superman March over Devil’s Dance from The Witches of Eastwick, partly because I am a huge fan of Superman: The Movie, but mostly because I have not seen either Cinderella Liberty or The Witches of Eastwick.

But these are minor complaints, at least about the Blu-ray portion of the two-disc deluxe set. The main draw for me wasn’t precisely the musical selections – although it was wonderful noting that the piece that made me a Williams fan – Main Title from Star Wars: A New Hope – back in 1977 is included in the program, as are The Raiders March from Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark and Luke & Leia from Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. (Original Trilogy fans will note that the Star Wars portion of the program leans heavily in favor of the 1977-1983 films; no themes from the 1999-2005 prequels are in John Williams/ Wiener Philharmoniker/ Anne-Sophie Mutter John Williams – Live in Vienna, and only one Sequel Trilogy theme, The Rebellion is Reborn from Star Wars: The Last Jedi, is heard here.)

Track List (Digital Edition)

1. The Flight To Neverland · From Hook 5:15
2. Excerpts · From Close Encounters of the Third Kind 7:47
3. Devil’s Dance · From The Witches of Eastwick 5:51
4. Adventures On Earth · From E. T. the Extra Terrestrial 10:09
5. Theme · From Jurassic Park 6:03
6. Dartmoor, 1912 · From War Horse 5:08
7. Out To Sea & The Shark Cage Fugue · From Jaws 5:08
8. Marion’s Theme · From Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark 4:02
9. Main Title · From Star Wars: A New Hope 6:25
10. The Rebellion is Reborn · From Star Wars: The Last Jedi 4:34
11. Luke & Leia · From Star Wars: Return of the Jedi 4:06
12. The Imperial March · From Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back 3:21
13, Raiders March · From Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark 5:45

      My Take

Although I am not a Luddite and tend, instead, to be an early adopter when new entertainment formats are introduced, I am still not enamored of “digital-only” media or streaming. It took me almost a decade to get into the habit of activating the digital codes that come with physical media releases of movies and TV shows. Only in recent years – since I moved from Miami to New Hometown, Florida in 2016 – have I warmed up to the new format and actually watched stuff I’ve added to my Movies Anywhere and Amazon Prime Video accounts.

As far as music goes, I still prefer CDs over digital albums, partly because I still like discs more – there’s something oddly reassuring about being able to see and touch physical media – but mainly because I hate being totally dependent on the Internet for my entertainment needs.

Still, I have – heavens to Betsy! – purchased quite a few digital albums since I decamped from South Florida nearly six years ago. Some – like Great Voices Sing John Denver – I had to buy because the CD version wasn’t easily available on Amazon. Many of the titles I have in my “Purchased” category in Amazon Music were included as free “AutoRip” copies included with purchases of CDs (I estimate that half of my digital library falls into this subgroup), while the rest were bought on impulse or to supplement CDs I already have but were purchased years before Amazon was allowed to include free digital copies of physical recordings.

The main advantage to having a library of digital music – or films, for that matter – is that you don’t need to insert or swap discs into a computer’s DVD-ROM drive when you want to listen to your favorite albums. This is especially true If you have one of those “all-in-one” computers where every major component is incorporated into one shell, including the monitor. Since the DVD-ROM drive is tucked in perpendicularly on the side of the PC and extends vertically rather than horizontally, I always think I will damage it because it looks – and feels – more fragile than similar drives on a laptop or a tower PC.

As a result – as much as I dislike doing so – I try to get digital versions of albums that I know will be played often. And since I am a long-time fan of John Williams’ music for the movies, you can be assured that I will listen to John Williams Live in Vienna often enough to justify the double dip.

Again, here’s a relevant bit from my previous review of the Deluxe Edition:

“I own quite a few albums –  including original soundtracks from all nine of the Star Wars Skywalker Saga films, Superman, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, as well as Philips and Sony Classical CDs released during and after his 1980-1994 tenure as principal conductor and music director of the Boston Pops Orchestra (for which he is the Laureate Conductor). I also have several “cover” albums of Maestro Williams’ movie themes recorded by such ensembles as the Los Angeles Philharmonic (Gustavo Dudamel, conductor) and the National Philharmonic Orchestra (Charles Gerhardt, conductor).

“These recordings contain many of the selections presented in John Williams/ Wiener Philharmoniker/ Anne-Sophie Mutter John Williams – Live in Vienna (Limited Deluxe Edition CD + Blu-ray), so I probably needed the CD half of this deluxe set like, well, a hole in my head.”

I suppose I could say the same thing about the digital-only version of John Williams Live in Vienna, but I do like the fact that I can listen to the music from this insanely good performance without having to fiddle with the all-in-one’s DVD-ROM drive. I can also play the album on my Amazon Fire HD or my smartphone – so long as I am in range of the house’s Wi-Fi or somewhere with a clear, strong, and free Wi-Fi signal.  

My only complaint about the digital album is that, like the CD and 2-LP version, it only has 13 tracks, whereas the live performance presented in the Blu-ray consisted of 19 selections. I can understand that the two physical media (CD and vinyl) have data-storage limits that dictate how many selections can fit into them.

The digital version, though, doesn’t have those limits, and DG has sometimes released longer versions of its albums digitally in Deluxe Editions. The label did this for Across the Stars last year; why not for John Williams Live in Vienna?

Nevertheless, fans of the  Jedi Master of Film Scores will find something to love in this stellar recording, and some listeners might even enjoy the Vienna Philharmonic’s interpretations of Maestro Williams’ music for the silver  screen so much that they will seek out some of the orchestra’s more “traditional” classical music albums. As a fan of both genres, I heartily recommend this digital version of John Williams Live in Vienna.

[1] The other DG album, Across the Stars, was released in August of 2019.

Published by Alex Diaz-Granados

Alex Diaz-Granados (1963- ) began writing movie reviews as a staff writer and Entertainment Editor for his high school newspaper in the early 1980s and was the Diversions editor for Miami-Dade Community College, South Campus' student newspaper for one semester. Using his experiences in those publications, Alex has been raving and ranting about the movies online since 2003 at various web sites, including Amazon, Ciao and Epinions. In addition to writing reviews, Alex has written or co-written three films ("A Simple Ad," "Clown 345," and "Ronnie and the Pursuit of the Elusive Bliss") for actor-director Juan Carlos Hernandez. You can find his reviews and essays on his blogs, A Certain Point of View and A Certain Point of View, Too.

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