Classical and Opera Reviews

Bond and Beyond @ Royal Festival Hall, London

16 November 2017


John Barry

Trombonists must love John Barry, as he writes so well for the instrument – be it in the shimmering warmth of the expansive brass underlay in Born Free and Out Of Africa, or in the Aston-Martin-exhaust rasp of Goldfinger or Thunderball. The five trombones – and other instruments – of the Philharmonia Orchestra under Nicholas Dodd provided all of this and more at Thursday evening’s orchestral exploration of ‘The Best of John Barry: Bond and Beyond’, which included many of the classics and a couple of relative unknowns: Moviola – a reworking of a piece intended for Prince Of Tides, from which Barry withdrew – and The Knack (and how to get it) – the theme to a 1965 Cockney comedy of sexual mores, which opened with a xylophone exposition, later developing into a cheeky-chappie theme on those trombones again.

The band gave some excellent performances, and, under Dodd’s direction, was clearly enjoying the freedom of the glitzy idiom to provide just the right amount of showiness. Barry, like Mantovani, also loves his singing strings, writing sensuous melodies for them, and the Philharmonia’s string tone throughout – especially the violins – was as smooth and assured as Roger Moore playing Baccarat.

One of the perks of writing film music (especially for the likes of Cubby Broccoli) is the novel instrumentation allowed by generous budgeting, and this has carried through into these full-orchestral arrangements. Philip Achille’s harmonica playing painted perfectly the sleazy-but-jejune tristesse of Midnight Cowboy, as well as the Frontier feel in the opening of the Dances With Wolves Suite; June Scott’s alto flute portrayed the wistful yearning for a bygone age in Somewhere In Time, and Nick Moss’ agile alto sax (to a slinky, slow-jazz accompaniment from piano, bass guitar and brush-cymbal) gave us the listless Florida heatwave of Body Heat. Elsa Bradley’s cimbalom playing – without which, the theme from The Persuaders simply isn’t worth billing – contained, however, one or two fluffs.

John Barry is a great man for a tune – many of his Bond themes were written for singers – and these orchestrations didn’t make you feel the lack of a voice, although some of his tunes are more memorable than others. It’s difficult to work out why the theme from The Persuaders, for example, is more hummable than that from Mary Queen Of Scots, but maybe that’s just the hit-and-miss nature of melodic composition. He’s also good at remaining intrinsically Barry, whilst summoning a particular image: the quirky, angular tune for Chaplin, for example, or the elephant-march inexorability of Zulu, each distills the essence of its film, but each remains firmly described in Barry’s unique melodic and harmonic language. What is always charming about Barry’s music, though, are the decorations and counter-melodies that he employs, and these arrangements also delivered that magic: the glorious ‘swirling-fall-of-cherry-blossom’ accompaniment in the strings that opens You Only Live Twice (which Robbie Williams sampled for Millennium); the slow turn on the horn that decorates the end of the first line of the refrain of Octopussy’s All-Time High, or the little rhythmic pattern in the woodwind underscoring the soaring melody of Born Free. 

The final Suite: James Bond featured all the best-known early material that made Barry’s music synonymous with 007: the James Bond Theme itself (although hotly contested, this was actually written by Monty Norman), From Russia with Love, Thunderball, The 007 Theme, You Only Live Twice, and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, finishing with the sexy heft of the squeaky trumpets in Diamonds are forever.

Sadly, though, Robert Lindsay, who acted as compère, was clearly under-rehearsed, and could have been replaced by a more accurate, informative and appropriately timed programme note.


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More on John Barry
Bond and Beyond @ Royal Festival Hall, London
Obituary: John Barry