Danny Elfman, famed for his film scores and (for you old-timers) the band Oingo Boingo, has dived into concert music with a satisfying splash. The prolific composer’s first Violin Concerto, commissioned by the Prague Orchestra, is also his first freestanding work for orchestra. Its prodigiously creative four movements are out now in a recording by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra with violinist Sandy Cameron, conducted by John Mauceri. Also on the album is his Piano Quartet, performed by the Philharmonic Piano Quartet Berlin.
The Violin Concerto harks back to the tumultuous times of 100-125 years ago when composers were bursting the boundaries of “classical” music in every dimension. Yet it sounds vivid and feels timeless. This complex, powerful work contains plenty of suggestions of the cinematic, as we might expect from Elfman. But it paints pictures with pure sound as well as anything by Stravinsky.
The first movement is a masterpiece of neo-Romanticism mingled with passages of operatic drama. It’s a showpiece for Cameron’s subtle, liquid style and stunning string-to-string fluidity, and her penetrating tone. She brings this stunning technique especially to bear in a lengthy cadenza-like solo. As much as this can be said about a piece’s recording, it feels as if the music was made for her – as indeed it was, though there’s no reason it shouldn’t enter the repertoire.
Halfway through the relentless, brilliantly exhausting second movement (“Spietato”), I was filled with the kind of anxiety only a master of film scores can elicit. Fireworks fly from Cameron’s violin as the orchestra stirs up frazzled sorcery in parallel. There may not be full-fledged developmental integrity, but a narrative drive sustains energy and focus.
The third movement, “Fantasma,” builds on a four-note figure that recalls the “Venus” movement of Holst’s The Planets – an appropriate link with a well-known piece of quintessentially programmatic music. Rich development follows, and a yearning beauty pervades the movement. Luscious textures from the strings coalesce with high, twirling Paganini-esque figurations from Cameron.
The sprightly final movement progresses from a “Giacoso” theme through vaguely ominous harmonies, stop-start atmospherics, and yet more impressive double-stop work from Cameron. There’s some playful Bernstein-esque jazziness, and artful integration of bells and other percussion. Of course, there was never any doubt of Elfman’s mastery of orchestration. It’s the integration of orchestra and solo instrument that especially impresses. Hearing this in a vacuum, I’d guess the composer had been writing for the violin his whole career. The achingly tearful “Lacrimae” section sustsains rhythmic and thematic momentum. The triumphant climax builds powerful textures over deep, looming chord changes that bring Vangelis’s serious work to mind. A quiet coda ends in a single sustained note on the violin, recalling the fade at the end of the first movement.
In the opening movement of the Piano Quartet rapid ostinatos suggest minimalism. But although these themes recur, the piece rapidly broadens into a mosaic of anxious palpitations and romantic interludes, insistence and silence. Delicate piano figures entwine with elastic atmospherics from the strings until the piece fades with a wink as the piano strikes a sequence of exposed half-tones. The second movement, titled “Kinderspott,” cleverly turns the teasing singsong calls of the playground into a rather sophisticated piece of modernism.
Buried in the neoclassicism of the march-like third movement lurk hints of 12-tone weirdness. The brief, calm (“Ruhig”) fourth forms a restful interlude before the closing movement (“Wolfsjungen”), during which it’s easy to picture amid scampering triplets a brood of young canines playacting their future bloody hunts.
Stream Danny Elfman’s Violin Concerto and Piano Quartet now. It comes out 5 April 2019 and is available for pre-order.