I'll start off by admitting that when I first heard James Newton Howard would be handling the music for Catching Fire, I was rather skeptical. I wasn't overly impressed with his score for The Hunger Games - there weren't very many themes that stood out, and it mostly sounds like ambient noise that didn't really fit the tone of the movie.
And while his "Catching Fire" score is still mostly ambiance, Howard has done it right this time. He perfectly captured the darker tone of the movie.
One of my favorite pieces from the score is "The Tour." It begins quietly as Katniss is giving her speech in District 11. Howard then slowly builds into a beautiful, orchestral remix of "Rue's Farewell" from the first movie. He then immediately transfers into a beautiful piece of ambiance, with a cello slowly growling away in the background, perfectly capturing the intensity and seriousness of the scene (Haymitch counseling Katniss and Peeta in the dome of the Justice Building).
The movie does have it's moments of sweeping, orchestral pieces, such as the aforementioned "The Tour," "The Fog," and "Arena Crumbles (especially Arena Crumbles)." Then there are the beautiful ambient pieces, such as "Katniss," "I Had To Do That," "Just Friends," and "I Need You."
Some tracks prominently feature some beautiful vocals. The singer perfectly captures the dark and intense tone of "Catching Fire." These vocals are used prominently in "I Had To Do That," "Katniss is Chosen," and "Arena Crumbles."
If there is any criticism I can pick out for this score, it's that there still isn't really a theme that defines The Hunger Games series. Anyone can play "Hedwig's Theme" and they'll recognize that as Harry Potter, and anyone can play "The Imperial March" and recognize that as Star Wars. There are some songs in both The Hunger Games and Catching Fire's scores that have potential to become the series' defining tune, such as "Horn of Plenty," which serves as Panem's sweeping national anthem. Another song with potential is "Rue's Farewell," which was featured prominently in the second half of the first movie and was given a beautiful remix in Catching Fire. If Howard returns for both Mockingjay movies, hopefully he'll develop one of these songs into the Hunger Game's defining song.
Overall, the Catching Fire score is a vast improvement over the first movie's. James Newton Howard expertly captures the dark, serious, and intense mood of the movie, whether it be through ambiance or sweeping, orchestral masterpieces. It's well worth a listen.