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Danny ELFMAN (b. 1953)
Violin Concerto “Eleven Eleven” [44:16]
Piano Quartet [20:42]
Sandy Cameron (violin)
Philharmonic Piano Quartet Berlin
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/John Mauceri
rec. 2018 Kammermusiksaal, Berliner Philharmonie (quartet), RSNO Centre, Glasgow (concerto) SONY CLASSICAL 19075869752 [65:02]
If you’ve heard of Danny Elfman at all then it will doubtless be in his capacity as a film composer. He has scored more than one hundred films, including many of Tim Burton’s anti-hero pictures, like the Batman series, Edward Scissorhands or Beetlejuice. He’s also responsible for some TV themes, including my own favourite, The Simpsons, with its seditious tritones and unstable harmonies that chase the melody around the page.
It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that this background influences the mood of both of the concert works on this disc, here receiving their world premiere recordings. Both are grounded in melody but play games with their harmonies that sound mischievous and also a little dangerous; however, they take the listener back to a safe place that brings a satisfying conclusion.
Elfman said that, in his violin concerto, he was aiming for “20th century post-Romanticism”, and that he hoped to bring together the (very different) audiences for film music and classical music, extending both towards one another in a way that meets somewhere in the middle. Once you know that, the work’s sound world makes a lot of sense, as does the role of Elfman’s big influences: in the booklet notes he’s very open about his love for the Russians and, in particular, Shostakovich and Prokofiev. He’s greatly in their debt here, perhaps too much so to be properly original; but he assimilates their influence fairly effectively, I thought, and for a first violin concerto it’s a pretty impressive piece.
It opens with a dark, low keening on the violin which is followed by string writing that specifically recalls Shostakovich in its moody darkness. That sets up a central dichotomy in the work between songful lyricism and unsettled edginess that drives the music successively forward, a duality that appears in all the movements, but perhaps most especially the finale where, right to the end, the music is driven (and perhaps a little portentous) but finally disappears into a strangely peaceful ending.
Prokofiev appears most forcibly in the second movement scherzo, which starts off as zany dance with songful interludes, and features cheeky percussion that
not only marks time but seems to drive it too. The string opening of the third movement is lush but also cold, in a very Slavic manner, and the finale has a tick-tock sense of time either running out or getting away.
Throughout, the concerto is relentlessly melodic and convincingly harmonic too. You can tell that, in his day job, Elfman is a composer who is used to writing tunes and to driving a narrative. In fact, there are some points (for example, 6 minutes into the first movement when the glockenspiel and celesta enter) that Elfman’s music is so descriptive that he seems to be underlining his own cinematic credentials.
He can’t have hoped for a more committed team of performers. Sandy Cameron collaborated in process of composition, and you sense the hand of an experienced soloist in a lot of the violin writing, which is well balanced against the orchestra and has a good sense of when to bed in and when to let fly. The RSNO, co-commissioners of the work, play with conviction and, yes, cinematic sense of colour, something that also comes out in the direction of John Mauceri, who understands the benefits (and the limitations) of the work’s structure very well. It's an impressive recording too, with a very effective soundscape, and several times the antiphonally placed strings made a big impact through my headphones.
If there are problems then they come in the work’s shape and dramatic pacing. It’s unnecessarily long, for one thing: 1111 bars, in fact, which helps to explain the title. However, I enjoyed it a lot more than, say, Wynton Marsalis' recent violin concerto: it feels more masterful than that work, and both the melodic and the harmonic textures are more appealing. So it’s far from perfect, but for a first violin concerto it's not at all bad, and it feels like it as a story to tell.
The same is true for the Piano Quartet, commissioned by one of the cellists of the Berlin Philhamonic. If anything it’s more of a success for the concerto because it’s smaller in length and scale, and therefore tighter in its impact and its focus. The first movement, in particular, is so agitated and jittery that it’s almost derivative of Elfman’s Tim Burton scores; but the later movements had a seditious twang to them, especially the nasty children’s games of the second movement, and the crazy whirlings of the finale. Again, the performers are excellent and the recording - in the Philharmonie itself, note! - is top notch. Interestingly, Elfman collaborated as recording producer on both works.
In the booklet notes, Elfman says that he wanted to write music for the concert hall, as opposed to the cinema, to maintain his sanity. He has some way to go before we can acclaim him as a master of the genre, but these works are very pleasing signposts, and I’ll happily listen to them many more times.