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CD Reviews: The Terminal and Piano Works


The Terminal ***

JOHN WILLIAMS

Decca

14 tracks – 57:50

Light, breezy, lengthy, occasionally amusing and fairly inconsequential. Those were my general feelings after seeing Steven Spielberg's latest, not-quite-greatest effort, which held my attention but failed to make any real impression. Straddling the line between drama and comedy, Spielberg seems to aim for whimsy. Maybe he does hit the mark, and whimsy just doesn't stick for me. Or maybe whimsy simply stretches thin over two-plus hours. I certainly can't fault Tom Hanks, who, with his mannerisms and quasi-Greek accent, does his best in the role of resourceful émigré Viktor Navorski. And I can't fault John Williams, whose score fits the film like a glove…for better and for worse. It is also light, breezy, lengthy, occasionally amusing…and yes, fairly inconsequential. At least in this reviewer's mind. Maybe you, the reader, love Williams in his gentle jazz mode, which is the vein of most of this score. I find him kind of boring.

Yes, I said it...boring! Oh, don't get me wrong! This is top-notch writing all the way. And as I said, it's a neat fit for the film, which at times seems to lack a soundtrack in favor of airport muzak. I certainly can't imagine anyone writing a better score for this film. Viktor Navorski's theme is charming and infectious (perhaps a little too infectious, the way it bounces maddeningly into my head at odd moments!) and the breezy (there's that word again!) theme for Viktor's antics has a nice laconic swing to it. The "Krakozhia National Anthem" makes for a welcome change of pace mid-album, and the Cape Fear quote in "Refusing to Escape" is amusing. Finally, there's an old school Hollywood love theme that makes its best appearance in "The Fountain Scene." But the majority of the album is slight repetitions and variations on these themes amidst meandering underscore.

If you're a Williams fan, you're probably familiar with this side of the maestro. It's no less an authentic part of his distinctive compositional voice than his heroic fanfares or layered action cues. Yet I do not happen to feel that this particular score makes for a very successful album. In spite of Williams butchering the score's chronology to make for a more musically sensible experience (I'm not convinced), it just doesn't hold my interest beyond the first few cues. There are highlights here and there – quotes of "Here Comes the Bride" in "The Wedding of Officer Torres"; the piano-bass duet that opens "Jazz Autographs" -- but pushing an hour in length, the album is simply too long.

And yet…and yet…it's quality music! Mature, well-arranged, compositionally flawless. In short, typical Williams. It pains me to give any Williams album less than four stars for just these reasons. Williams at his least inspired writes better music than most of his contemporaries on a good day. But I have to go with my gut over my head on this one, and review the album as an experience. I love many slow scores, long scores, and even moody, atmospheric ones. But for some reason this one puts me to sleep. Forgive me, maestro…your godlike talent ensures you three stars, but my perplexing resistance to this latest opus draws the line there.     -- John Takis




Piano Works (Limited Edition) *** 1/2

CRAIG ARMSTRONG

Sanctuary CACDX3

19 tracks - 58:23

For those who thought Craig Armstrong's greatest work was achieved at his bank of synthesizers, the composer goes "unplugged" to demonstrate the range both of his own compositions and the piano as a single source of sound. Instead of the "best of" compilation that many originally anticipated, this release utilizes a selection of Armstrong's familiar tracks and transforms them into one complete piece. I'm avoiding the use of the word "classical," if only because many would (wrongly) see this as synonymous with stuffy old-fashioned music. By contrast, this work is very contemporary, while still classical in structure. It's a mature piece from a composer who is so comfortable with his craft that he is prepared to re-work and re-structure his own classics into something quite different.

Where else would you find music from scores such as Love Actually, Romeo + Juliet, Orphans and Moulin Rouge and Massive attack's "Weather Storm" sitting alongside one another as if they were composed for the same movement? Of course, this could have backfired terribly, with the collector enraged that his favorite Armstrong tracks have been stripped down to their barest melody. But surely that's the point of the album -- a good composition is a good composition, and with the orchestral layers peeled away, the purest music is left to dominate.

Moulin Rouge fans might find that Satine's Theme is too different a beast in this form, but that will ultimately be a matter of opinion. Both movie and now piano versions exist for the same source, and how often are we as collectors offered contrasting takes by the original composer? The melancholy theme from Orphans is, incidentally, presented here for the first time in an official release. All sounds on the album are created by the piano, though there are electronic treatments on most of the tracks. Armstrong makes a point to inform which piano was used at which of the four recording locations.

This is a limited numbered release, beautifully packaged in a bound fabric-covered 28-page booklet with photographs of Paris. It was here, in France's capital city, that Armstrong recorded a number of the tracks, and the CD also features a preview of a film of this recording, due for DVD release. Armed with the knowledge that the music is being performed in such a romantic setting, the disc takes on further elegant nuances with repeated play. More than a chillout album or a simple mood piece, it's a concert work for your living room.     -- Nick Joy


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