John Williams: Vienna vs. Berlin

John Williams in Vienna

  • Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin); John Williams (conductor); Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
  • Recorded 2020
  • Deutsche Grammophon 483 6373 (1CD)

The Berlin Concert

  • John Williams (conductor); Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
  • Recorded 2021
  • Deutsche Grammophon 486 1710 (2CD)

These two live recordings of John Williams conducting the Vienna and Berlin philharmonics were hotly anticipated, and for good reason. Not only were these concerts the débuts of the world’s most famous film composer in the two musical metropolises respectively (and in Europe generally), the recordings were also documents of the rare forays of these two august orchestras into film music. The fact that we have the same conductor performing music of a genre ostensibly new to the musicians around the same time presents us orchestral music connoisseurs with novel common ground with which to evaluate these two most prestigious of orchestras — not to mention that some musical numbers overlap, allowing for direct A-B comparison.

First, though, let’s get the claim from several media sources that Williams’ music (or film music in general) would have been unfamiliar territory to the musicians out of the way. There’s certainly an element of novelty in hearing these musicians negotiate pieces ostensibly outside their “fach”. The fact is, though, that Williams’ compositional style is squarely rooted in the late romantic idiom, bearing obvious resemblances with the music of Wagner, Mahler, and Strauss that sit squarely at the center of the orchestras’ repertoire. Moreover, most of the orchestras’ musicians would have grown up with this music or at least heard it previously, and indeed both orchestras have performed Williams’ music in their Schönbrunn and Waldbühne outdoor concerts in Vienna and Berlin respectively. So, the insinuation that the orchestras are newcomers to the music is at best inaccurate. This is not to say, however, that Williams’ style is a mere copy of his forebearers, nor that the orchestras do not need to adjust their playing to achieve that “Hollywood” sound that we recognize in the films. In Berlin’s case, this meant ditching the regular German trumpets in favor of brighter, more forward-sounding American instruments. The key question, therefore, is whether their efforts have been successful, and to what degree.

From a purely technical perspective, Berlin wins hands down. Of course, the orchestra’s virtuosity has never been in doubt, and in recent years under Kirill Petrenko it has risen to a whole new level entirely. No note is ever out of tune, no rhythm ever out of place, no instrument or section ever out of balance. Given the technical demands of Williams’ music, the sheer immaculateness of playing is itself something to marvel at. In this respect, Berlin has reached a standard equaled by few (perhaps the modern-day Concertgebouw or Bavarian Radio, or the Cleveland of yesteryear) and surpassed by none. In contrast, the Vienna Philharmonic, for all its esteem, has never been a particularly precise orchestra, not even in music that they call their own. Of course, they often surpass themselves, but for this they need coaxing; otherwise, they revert to a certain easygoing sloppiness. Williams is too experienced of a conductor to allow for unacceptable slovenliness, but nevertheless we get a bit of both worlds: on the one hand, some incredibly natural ritardandi seemingly only achievable through telepathy; on the other, some untidy execution and approximate intonation (as Exhibit A, consider the laggy trumpet triplets that mar the opening of the famous Main Title to Star Wars).

But what about the orchestras’ efforts in capturing the music’s spirit? That’s another story entirely. With Berlin, the attention to beauty of sound and faultlessness of execution seems to have been purchased at the expense of color and character. The sonority of the orchestra itself is a case in point: dark and deep, each section beautifully blended, the strings providing a rich, mahogany cloak to the fluent woodwinds and plush brass. And therein lies the problem: the Berliners’ basic sound sorely lacks the brilliance and transparency that the music requires. Indeed, this was the Achilles’ heel of their recent in-house Mahler cycle, and so it is with this recording.

By contrast, the Vienna Philharmonic’s idiosyncratic sonic profile, a shimmering, golden, unblended sound with horns to the fore, helps their case immeasurably. A comparison between the two recordings of Jurassic Park (the “Journey to the Island” theme) reveals what’s lacking: after experiencing the dazzling bravura of the Viennese trumpets and horns, the Berlin brass’ darker tone and weaker projection feels tepid in comparison. The difference in sonority between the orchestras is exacerbated by the halls in which they were recorded: the larger, drier, and more distant acoustic in the Philharmonie as compared to the Musikverein may have contributed to the slightly recessed quality in the Berlin recording (the engineers on both recordings capture the proceedings with admirable fidelity).

What’s more, the Vienna musicians play with an imitable stylishness that the Berliners simply do not replicate. Listen to the way the Viennese strings bloom at the opening theme of Jurassic Park, or how they soar soulfully in Marion’s Theme in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and then compare them to the more cautious and earthbound Berlin renditions. Proficient though the Berlin players are (and how could they be otherwise?), this je ne sais quoi elevates the Vienna performance onto another plane.

In the end, though, there’s no mistaking either orchestra for the London Symphony Orchestra in the original soundtracks. Despite their best intentions, both these orchestras simply can’t emulate the Londoners’ rhythmic snap, or the swashbuckling directness of their brass. Compare the Vienna Star Wars Main Title and the Berlin Superman March to their London counterparts. The difference is night and day: in Vienna or Berlin you admire the beauty of execution, but in London you are hit in the solar plexus with a blow of adrenalin. This is probably the difference between orchestras that know the music versus orchestras that are steeped in the idiom. Still, there’s no denying that the sound the Viennese and Berliners make are incredibly pretty, and that they make their music theirs in their own inimitable way. For many listeners, that alone will be a strong enough attraction.

So how about the conducting? It goes without saying that John Williams knows exactly what he wants as a uniquely authoritative interpreter of his own music and has the technical means to achieve it. After all, he presided over the LSO for the soundtracks. Even in these European concerts, and at this advanced age, his conductorial skills seems to have remained undiminished; reports from the rehearsals testify to Williams’ consummate professionalism and solid technique. As the videos of the concerts show, Williams seems to take a back seat and let the orchestra do its thing most of the time, only intervening in tempo transitions or places where ensemble coordination could be an issue. Given the sheer force of character of the orchestras, it’s almost as if Williams is content with being a figurehead over proceedings, rather than an active commander of his instrumental troops. One imagines how much more inspiring the performances could have been if they were conducted by somebody who knew how to bring out the very best in these strong-minded ensembles (Mehta and Dudamel, both of whom have recorded Williams’ music and had long associations with both orchestras, come to mind).

In the final analysis, I would rate the Vienna album higher, both for the orchestra’s more engaging, if less pristine, playing, as well as for the slightly better sound. Yet I wouldn’t want to be without the Berlin album’s more extensive program featuring several of my favorite numbers (music from Harry Potter and Superman). And of course the world would be a much less interesting place without the LSO’s pioneering soundtracks. But really, why choose between them? Listen to all of them and revel in some great orchestral playing of these timeless masterpieces.



Wonderful selections of the great film composer conducting his own music with the two of the world’s great orchestras. The Berlin Philharmonic executes the notes more immaculately, but the Vienna album has a slight edge on account of the orchestra’s glowing sonority and more soulful playing. In the end, both orchestras make the music theirs rather than emulate the glitzy Hollywood sound of the originals, and that’s not a bad thing at all — certainly in terms of sheer beauty this music has never been better played.

One reply on “John Williams: Vienna vs. Berlin”

Occasionally you ask the internet a question and you think, “No way is a satisfactory, useful, concise, insightful answer to that query out there.” In this case, I was pleasantly surprised. Thank you so much. Or, er, I mean no thank you… because I’m buying both!

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