With a 30+ year career under his belt, James Horner has a substantive canon of music worthy of a retrospective, and Silva’s 2-disc offering presents current and past favourites performed by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra.
Of the two discs, CD1 is the most satisfying due to the breadth of Horner’s skills as a writer of large-scale orchestral scores. The lengthy Avatar suite easily demonstrates his skill with chorus, large brass, and beautifully integrated strings which blend the classical scoring style and modernism that permeates Horner’s writing.
Although he’s held back from scoring volumes of standard genre films after the monster hit Titanic (which, like the film, hasn’t aged as well, given both are steeped in melodrama and centered around a grating main theme), he’s picked and chosen a few interesting small films, notably The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (with its flowing piano sections); the thematic simplicity of The Karate Kid remake; and wavering melodic undercurrent in A Beautiful Mind, conveyed by female voice, trumpets, and a pulsing piano figure.
Most of the selections on CD1 cover historical pieces written for Deep Message Pictures, and fans will enjoy the seamless flow from the aforementioned to the Latin-tinged The Mask of Zorro, the strident aggression of Ransom, the elegance of rustic Scotland in Braveheart, and sprawling Americana in Legends of the Fall.
CD2 is a blend of Horner’s family-friendly films, of which the best are The Rocketeer and Cocoon. Less notable works are We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story and the drippy Land Before Time, and Willow, which still sounds like an overwrought attempt to turn a weighted Wagnerian score into something magical and fanciful.
The first two Star Trek sequels get their own theme statements, as does Aliens – still a tough score for anyone to re-record and match in energy and nuances, outside of Horner’s perfect original recording – and Battle Beyond the Stars, the low-budget Star Wars knock-off Roger Corman commissioned, and Horner managed to gloss over with big sounds that presaged his Standard Heroic Brass Fanfare for a Sci-Fi, as done with sharper refinement in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
Critics of Horner will probably find flaws in many of his scores, and to some extent they aren’t far off in citing the composer for his self-plagiarism (the main harmonic line in Beautiful Mind and The Man Without a Face are identical). Silva’s producers have picked a good selection of material that isn’t as overtly derivative of prior works, but it is odd to hear bits of David Arnold’s Stargate theme popping up in Troy (oh, it’s there), nor integration of overused classical pieces: Gayane’s “Ballet Suite” worked great in Aliens, but it didn’t need to reappear in Patriot Games; and he broke the 100-year global ban on using Orff’s Carmina Burana in film music until 2040 when the piece dominated Glory in a blatantly reworked soundalike version with mixed chorus.
Horner’s canon comes with baggage and controversy (as well as specific irritants), but he is responsible for some of the most important scores of the last 25 years. Pity this set didn’t include material from Brainstorm, Wolfen, or Something Wicked This Way Comes, but perhaps Silva might consider a Vol. 2, contrasting his modernism with the quiet, intimate themes for which he’s equally adept.
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan