United Kingdom John Williams and Bernstein: Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Jonathon Heyward (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 13.1.2024. (MBr)
John Williams – Superman March, Violin Concerto No.2, The Duel from The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn; Nice to be Around from Cinderella Liberty; Hedwig’s Theme from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
Bernstein – Symphonic Suite from On the Waterfront
Anne-Sophie Mutter has long had a special relationship with contemporary composers, commissioning some of the finest violin concertos of the last couple of decades. But in recent years she has turned to the American film composer John Williams – and not just for new works such as the Violin Concerto No.2 which was receiving its UK premiere at this London Philharmonic concert. Williams has been re-working some of his most well-known film themes for a violin soloist (Mutter) and the results in many cases are quite revelatory.
Williams, who will be 92 next month, shows no signs of slowing down – his most recent score, for James Mangold’s Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny was written just last year. What is so very unusual about Williams as a classical composer, however, is that his music has almost little common warmth or even tone – something that cannot always be said of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, for example. Listening to the violin concerto I found it quite striking how this enormous work – written in four movements, like the Brahms B flat-minor Piano Concerto – owed something to Alban Berg in the opening ‘Prologue’, a composer Mutter has often played, and in the magnificent closing ‘Epilogue’ to Dmitri Shostakovich, a composer whose concertos she has not, to my knowledge, played. What it does share with the Brahms is that wonderful orchestra – soloist symphonic relationship, even down to Williams’ use of the harp (as Brahms used the cello) to unify the structure of a concerto that sometimes dissolves in quite the opposite direction.
Williams writes in his brief note on the concerto that the inspiration for the work comes directly from the artist herself – from her energy, to her inspirational ability to improvise music. I have to say that I found the jazz inflections that Williams writes in the first movement rather elusive, no matter how swaggering he might have composed them. But what is remarkable is that despite the vast resources of the orchestra he uses the sheer clarity of sound, the pristine brilliance of the notes that come through is just astonishing. Never once is the violin overshadowed by the orchestra; the harp, very carefully placed at the front desk between the cellos and violas, is designed to be heard specifically as both a solo and an orchestral instrument with almost equal prominence, much as Brahms intended in his piano concerto with the cello.
The second movement, ‘Rounds’, rather as implied in the title, is circular in structure and may also be the most conventionally ‘Williams’ of the four movements in that it uses what is so common to his film music, the leitmotif. This will return in the final movement, but in language that is different to the more expressionist tone of almost dripping colour we get here. ‘Dactyls’ is the scherzo of the concerto – written in triple metre but taking the triad of the title to the cadenza itself which is for violin, harp and timpani. The cadenza might be on the thorny side, but its crispness and originality is undeniable – and Mutter played it with mesmeric tightness and brilliant cleanness.
I think the final movement, ‘Epilogue’, is the finest of the concerto. It is the most powerful of the work, the one where the violin and the harp seem to pull furthest from each other only to end in a kind of quiet resolution that fades into silence. Williams has occasionally toyed with a bleakness in this work that has manifested itself in the cellos and basses – this starts in the early bars of the first movement, but it assumes much greater prominence in ‘Epilogue’. In contrast to some of his film music this is entirely understated but it is residually dark as if the healing that is inevitably coming is not an easy one, the renewal not obviously easily gained either.
There might have been another reason why John Williams composed this concerto for Anne-Sophie Mutter. And that is for the sheer beauty of the tone she produces. Mutter has always had one of the most opulent sounds but here she was really quite extraordinary – the bloom, the volume, the colour from the violin was often in a class of its own. She is not a soloist to play in isolation; she doesn’t inhabit a world that is entirely of her own making either. She would often play towards the first and second violin desks and there was a clear musical chemistry between her and the superb harpist, Sue Blair. The London Philharmonic played the score with some panache, conducted with skill and thought to his soloists by Jonathon Heyward.
The first half had opened with Williams’ Superman March, a swaggering performance that has all the hallmarks of Williams in his most epic form. There is certainly nothing easy about this music – and rather like Mahler’s Fifth, there is a certain testing challenge to ask any brass instrument to open a piece. Perhaps it felt just a little tempered, but the performance was certainly vivid.
Mutter returned for the second half of the concert for several pieces Williams had arranged for her from his film scores. In a few comments from the stage she referred to Williams as ‘The Master’ – a perhaps fitting description for him. The adaptations originate from an album which they recorded together in 2019 called Across the Stars and the three themes she played came from films that Williams scored between 1973 and 2011.
There is, perhaps, something different about these reworkings than their original scorings bring across in terms of the music’s stated purpose. Williams has always – unlike many film composers – peppered his scores with instrumental solos for a dramatic effect which works on screen for some visual purpose. Changing a flute, harmonica, horn or celeste solo to one written for the violin – and composing it on a much larger scale – doesn’t always work. Largely, however, I think it has.
The Duel from The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn dates from 2011. It is one of Williams’ more Korngoldian themes, rapier-like in its vividness. It works for the violin simply because of that instrument’s ability to gift a soloist with the right amount of capriciousness – and Mutter was more than capable of doing that. Nice to be Around from Cinderella Liberty, a 1973 film, is more poignant but so clearly jazz inflected too. That, too, worked with a more relaxed, yet free style from Mutter. She has sometimes been a tense, even rigid, player in concert but Williams’ music has allowed her to play with a freedom and sense of enjoyment I have not always seen from her.
Where we got to true inspiration – even greatness – was in Hedwig’s Theme from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone from 2001. This is an outright piece of orchestral virtuosity in the first place, not least for the woodwind – and even in this reworking it still is. Williams has largely left all of that superb writing for the flutes and piccolo intact – it is notoriously difficult and simply magical to hear. But then this is music about magic and there is almost none finer than it. But what he has written for Mutter is something akin to Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy or Zigeunerweisen with huge amounts of Paganini thrown in. Almost everything a violin can do is here and it has been dazzlingly composed. Her performance of it was superlative. This is a piece that could quite easily become a standard showpiece for violinists.
There were several encores. Across the Stars from Stars Wars: Attack of the Clones, Helen’s Theme from Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny and a searing, emotionally powerful performance of the opening theme from Schindler’s List.
For the final work we turned to Leonard Bernstein and his Symphonic Suite from On the Waterfront. I had rather forgotten how good this music is for Elia Kazan’s 1954 film, even though Bernstein’s 1955 suite uses quite a lot of music which never made it into the film itself. Composed in a single movement it drives a harder punch than any of his other film scores.
There are two sides to this music – the dark music that symbolises brutality and violence and the depressiveness of the New York slums; and then there is the searing love theme that begins on a flute and then reaches a soaring climax on the horn and strings. Bernstein evokes Nielsen in the war-like battle between the timpani, there are the stomping strokes on the piano keyboard, the blistering whistles on the brass. Between these splashes of crushing violence the melodic stillness of lamentation runs uneasily beneath it. Jonathon Heyward drew a well-drilled performance from the LPO with gripping drama.
But as with much of the orchestral playing in this concert what we got from the orchestra was a great deal of tonal warmth rather than depth – strings, in particular, were overly refined and just a little too comfortable in music that asks for something a bit riskier. A different conductor might have dug deeper and turned up the volume a bit more. If the concerto had indeed been dazzling, then the film music felt just a little small screen when it should have been a little more big screen. But with film music concerts played by great orchestras a bit of a rarity these days this was still a most enjoyable evening.