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The Classics: James Horner

August 15, 2018

Sony has released James Horner: The Classics, a compilation of famous themes by Horner performed by various and varying artists – with mixed results, to be honest. The release comes just days before Horner’s would-be 65th birthday and as such makes for a nice remembrance compilation. Whilst I have a few issues with this album, I cannot fault the performances and the passion from everyone involved. It had me scratching my head a few times, but on the whole it’s a compelling album.The album opens with arguably the most famous and certainly the best selling piece of music Horner has written: “My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic, performed here by 2Cellos. There was a time the media was saturated with that song, but its melody is still divine; and the arrangement and performance by 2Cellos is breathtakingly gorgeous and heartfelt.  The same can be said about their rendition of “For the Love of a Princess” from Braveheart. In both cases it’s a very nice touch that woodwinds still play a prominent role, as they did in their original versions.

“Rooftop Kiss” from The Amazing Spider-Man is another beautiful theme, but its harp-heavy performance doesn’t feel quite right to me. The plucked sound and any mechanical sounds that come with playing the harp hinder the softness of the piece, in my opinion. It doesn’t take anything away from Livinia Meijer’s virtuoso performance, but I don’t think the harp is the right choice of instrument here.

Things get worse with “Willow’s Theme” from Willow. Both the adventurous brass and the mystical shakuhachi are replaced with saxophone. Technically I can’t fault it, but the saxophone gives this piece an unwanted comical, almost ‘big fat gypsy wedding’ sound that does not suit Willow at all. And just as I’m starting to think that I’m being too cynical, there’s an almost Nyman-esque ending that I really dislike. It doesn’t help that I’m not a fan of saxophones anyway, and with “Willow’s Theme” being one of my favourite themes ever… well, this was never going to work for me, no matter how wonderful a performer Amy Dickson is.

Up next is another favourite “Theme” from Cocoon, with a powerful performance from cellist Tina Guo. It’s a heartfelt performance and a technically challenging one. Guo makes it sound easy; and yet I have a slight issue with the piece. The cello is often pushed into the higher registers where it doesn’t sit naturally. It gives the cello a tormented sound, which can be incredibly effective. But here, again, I think it detracts from the softness and beauty of the theme.  And I guess that criticism applies to most cues here. It’s hard to fault the “Main Title” from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, but its focus on solo trumpet doesn’t quite work for me; it’s a bit too overpowering.  Guo and her cello return for “I See You” from Avatar and similar criticism applies. Wonderfully performed, but to be honest I never really liked this song.

Field of Dreams fares much better. This was always meant to be a small-scale ‘indie’-type score and Craig Ogden’s guitar is perfectly suited for it.  Now, considering what I said earlier about the harp and the saxophone, you wouldn’t expect me to like “Somewhere Out There” from An American Tail, but I do. Both work beautifully here.  The quirky and acrobatic Lindsey Stirling lends her violin to “The Ludlows” from Legends of the Fall. It’s one of Horner’s finest pieces and, of course, already featured the violin. This is a stellar rendition.

Horner did some amazing things on the piano, so of all the pieces that The Piano Guys could’ve worked with I’m simply stunned they decided to go with “Jake’s First Flight” from Avatar. It’s even more bizarre when you consider that it’s actually a solo cello (not credited on my documentation) that takes centre stage, with the pianos fluttering in the background. Anything from Sneakers to Bobby Fischer and A Beautiful Mind would’ve made a tonne more sense.  Piano does take the lead in “Boys Playing with Airplanes” from The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. It’s such a lovely cue; playful and sentimental.

Perhaps I should take a moment to address the inevitable problem with compilations like these. There will always be a debate over what’s included and what’s left out. It’s easy for me to sit here an wonder ‘why not Sneakers, why not Zorro, why not Glory’ but I’m sure there are many factors that determine what can or can’t be included. What’s the brief for this album? Who’s the target audience? Then there may be licensing issues. And then you’ve got to find performers, which may bring up contractual complexities. I would’ve picked some different tracks, and so would you; but is it fair to criticise the selection? And then, in this case, there’s another layer to that inevitable problem: we’re presented with different interpretations from different artists. With few exceptions, I’m not a fan of the sharp focus that’s given to solo instruments here. But I’m guessing that’s the brief for the album; and plenty of other people will love it. I may not agree with the saxophone in Willow, but clearly plenty of others thought it’d be a great idea. And then there is the arrangement of the cues. Most of them are actually pretty close to the original, but with an added or highlighted solo lead. For me, I think I would’ve preferred it if some artists took Horner’s ideas and then did something radically different with it. It puts The Classics in an odd place in that it’s not unique enough to be something amazingly interesting, yet it is different enough to not be ‘just another’ compilation album. It’s for this reason I don’t often (if at all) review compilation albums. It’s too easy to be too critical, despite fantastic performances and the great obstacles that had to be overcome to put the album together.

Solo trumpet by David Elton features in the “Main Title” from Apollo 13. It did so in the original and it would be blasphemous to re-orchestrate it. Elton’s trumpet is a little sharper than the original and his performance is a little more playful, with a few added flourishes. It all works really well; and it’s particularly nice to hear the percussion section getting the riffs right! You might think ‘why wouldn’t they’ but there have been some iffy performances from other orchestras on other albums.

Stirling and her violin close the album with “Briseis and Achilles” from Troy. I wouldn’t consider this to be amongst Horner’s best cues, but I guess Troy was a big enough success to warrant its place on this album. That said, Stirling’s and the orchestra’s performance is absolutely splendid. There’s a sadness here, almost gut-wrenching, and even something slightly sinister in the horn section, that may actually make this performance more compelling than the original. I wouldn’t say it’s the best cue on this album, but for me it’s the biggest happy surprise.

In all, it’s a mixed bag for me. Some really good performances, some not so. I think my biggest issue is that the solo performances are just a tad too strong in the mix. I appreciate those performances are the whole point of this album, but I feel they draw a bit too much attention to themselves. But what I do very much like is that all of these cues have been performed with a full orchestra. It’s a big production and the arrangements and performances are top-notch (just a shame that the orchestra is often out-mixed by the solos). Also, this album beautifully showcases Horner’s gift for melody, for storytelling (yes, even in a single cue) and for tugging at the heartstrings. He writes (…wrote, sigh) music that musicians clearly love to play. You can hear their passion. You can hear that the composer has given them enough to work with; and you can hear in each cue how the soloists take that material, make it their own and run with it. Yes there are some artistic decision that I personally don’t agree with, but I cannot fault the passion and the sheer craftsmanship that’s on display here. [3.5/5]

James Horner The Classics, James Horner, 14 tracks, 64m, Sony Classical 2018.

Review by Pete Simons (c) 2018 Synchrotones

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