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Williams: War Horse / Original Soundtrack

Release Date: 11/21/2011 
Label:  Sony   Catalog #: 797528  
Composer:  John Williams
Conductor:  John Williams
Number of Discs: 1 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

WILLIAMS War Horse John Williams, cond; Studio O SONY 88697975282 (65:44)

Despite his popularity and amazing success as a film composer, John Williams has been criticized at times for writing too much music, supposedly designed in many cases to tell the audience how to feel. Concerning the issue of how much music is enough for a film, it is instructive to compare Williams’s scores for War Horse and The Adventures of Read more Tintin . In fact, War Horse does not have wall-to-wall music, as has been implied by some naysayers. Approximately half of its 146 minutes contains underscore. That leaves more than an hour without music. In contrast, Williams’s music is the engine that drives the nonstop action of The Adventures of Tintin , but the music is rarely mentioned in reviews, despite the fact that there is more music compared to the film’s running time. The real problem for some critics may be that Williams’s music is so assertive, especially when it is mixed loudly on the soundtrack, as is almost invariably the case with a Steven Spielberg film. Interestingly, the same critics who criticize Williams (and Spielberg) are usually fine with the film scoring style prevalent in the 1940s and 1950s. How often have you heard anyone complain about the even more assertive styles of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Franz Waxman, and Bernard Herrmann? None of those composers particularly subscribed to the philosophy that film music should not be heard.

We are ultimately dealing with directorial style here. Spielberg clearly loves good music. He is also very knowledgeable about it, and his models are the composers of the Golden Age. With the passing of Jerry Goldsmith, Williams is now the last remaining substantive vestige of that style. That in a nutshell is the principal reason for their longstanding and unprecedented partnership as a composer-director team. It is therefore hardly surprising to see and hear a musical and dramatic collaboration like War Horse (the last 15 minutes of E.T. are choreographed to Williams’s music; there is no dialog). Spielberg has been known to reshoot his films to accommodate Williams’s music. The score effectively achieves its desired purpose in War Horse . Whether or not you like the Spielberg-Williams approach is largely a matter of taste as regards the role of music in film. There is nothing new here.

Looking at this from a different angle, a well-written, assertive (which does not necessarily mean bombastic) score almost invariably provides a better and more involving pure listening experience on an audio CD. That turns out to be the case with War Horse . In contrast, it is almost impossible to get through Howard Shore’s repetitive, monochromatic, adynamic music on the CD containing his score for Martin Scorcese’s otherwise excellent Hugo . All of this emphasizes the fact that a good film score does not necessarily equate with an equally good stand-alone listening experience separated from the film’s visual images, and vice versa.

The opening theme of War Horse is first played by a solo flute and then taken up by an impossibly lush full string orchestra anchored by synthesizer bass. It is immediately clear that War Horse will be a pastoral romantic score reflecting the influence of Ralph Vaughan Williams. This is hardly surprising given the film’s locale and Williams’s lifelong affinity for British music, including Gustav Holst and William Walton in addition to Vaughan Williams. Williams has been in this territory before. We then hear some more animated music including melodic material reminiscent of his underrated, epic score for Far and Away . The transition to the war sequences is masterfully handled with a solo trumpet over distant percussion and the ominous lower registers of the orchestra. As heard on this CD, it becomes apparent that War Horse is not really a very loud or bombastic score. In fact, some would probably prefer that Williams get on with it and let it rip rather than indulge his tendency to deflate his climaxes too quickly. The music is in many places subdued and introspective, but Williams fans will probably embrace it more than the dazzling technique of Tintin because of its many melodies and soaring romanticism. This musical approach is virtually required to complement Spielberg’s gorgeous visual images designed (once again) to look back to the cinematic style of the 1950s. The score has a tripartite structure with the central war sequences functioning almost as a more animated scherzo separating the subdued and lyrical opening and conclusion. The score is remarkably organized and symmetrical as it opens and closes with that solo flute. Taken as a whole, War Horse to a certain extent could be called Far and Away light. The instantly hummable melodies are there, but War Horse lacks the irrepressible energy and power of Far and Away’s climaxes. The score also evokes Williams’s unique brand of Americana heard in Born on the Fourth of July and The Patriot.

As with Tintin , Sony’s sound is of demonstration quality. There is an up-front aural perspective that preserves a reasonable semblance of a conventional late 19th- century orchestra in concert hall setup. The rich, velvety strings, prodigious bass, and copious inner detail are characteristic of super engineer Shawn Murphy’s work that has contributed so much to Williams (and James Horner) soundtrack recordings over the years.

The CD contains a reasonably complete presentation of the substantive music in the score. There are only a few brief cues omitted that will be of little consequence to anyone other than obsessive Williams completists. Spielberg’s album note contains the usual accolades, but he summarizes the score well, referring to its quiet majesty and a vivid musical portrait of the British landscape inspired by the picturesque settings of William Wordsworth. War Horse will please Williams fans and anyone interested in film music reflecting the British pastoral Romantic school flavored by his unmistakable stylistic trademarks.

FANFARE: Arthur Lintgen
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Works on This Recording

War Horse by John Williams
Conductor:  John Williams

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