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Pas de Deux
  • Composed by James Horner
  • Mercury Classics / 2015 / 56m (Horner work 28m)

James Horner’s first concert work for over three decades, Pas de Deux is his concerto for violin, cello and orchestra, commissioned by and written for the Norwegian siblings Mari and Hakon Samuelsen.  It premièred in Liverpool in 2014 with Mari (violin) and Hakon (cello) accompanied by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko and the same group then went into the studio to record it for this album, which also features music by Pärt, Sollima and Einaudi.

Critical reception at the time of the première was predictably mixed, as it always is when concert works by film composers are played, with the inevitable sniping from snobbish classical critics about it being “too filmic”, too tuneful, whatever blah blah.  In fact one of the things that is so attractive about Horner’s best film music is that often even that doesn’t feel all that filmic, which I presume means so ingrained to the demands of the film that it doesn’t function as pure music away from it. One of his great strengths as a film composer was the way he managed to tell stories through his music: without the images there it’s almost always easy to conjure up one’s own when listening to his music; and it goes without saying that his musical chops were absolute, his ability to write real music of substance for an orchestra surely not in question.  As such he seemed a natural to write colourful, evocative music for the concert hall.

Mari and Hakon Samuelsen with James Horner

Mari and Hakon Samuelsen with James Horner

The three-movement Pas de Deux is lengthy for a concerto, at a shade under half an hour.  The opening of the first movement immediately confirms what the work’s title suggests – this is a dance, the instruments intertwined and moving freely in front of and along with the orchestra.  The tone of the opening movement is familiar to fans of the composer: it’s essentially an extension of the “natural world” he explored in The Spitfire Grill, The New World and others, full of earthy textures, glistens of wind through trees, droplets of dew on the grass.  The colours are so vivid; the soloists dancing joyfully with the orchestra remaining calm.  The romantic air builds with warmth, but finally becomes a little more tentative towards the end of the movement, the orchestra fading leaving the Samuelsens exposed.

The second movement (which occupies half of the work’s total time) has a more rural feel, a sense of Englishness (Vaughan Williams).  The theme developed is exquisite.  I particularly like the brief call-and-response between the soloists a couple of minutes into the movement, quite unlike anything I’ve heard from the composer before and delectably beautiful.  The orchestra really swells for the first time half way through, with bursts of power beginning to come through alongside the violin and cello’s endless dance.  But that introduces a passage of greater restraint, the calmness of the first movement returning; gradually dawn seems to break, the colour becomes more and more intense, the violin in particular enjoying a memorable cadenza which leads into a thunderous moment.  Then – the calm after the storm – a playful section for the soloists, quite lovely.

It is the third movement, by far the briefest, that’s going to have a lot of Horner fans jumping for joy.  All restraint is abandoned and the composer is at his most ebullient, a dynamic phrase for the strings accompanied by percussion introducing the soloists, at first passionately intertwined, then taking turns, eventually floating off with the ever-louder orchestra.  It’s a great pleasure and all leads up to the most magnificent of all “Hornerisms”, an extended variation on that phenomenal conclusion to Star Trek and The Rocketeer (and others) which brings a shiver to the spine.

It’s a great shame but after the Liverpool performance and a follow-up in Norway (at which Horner himself conducted some of his film music, a public first apart from a couple of Titanic events) I don’t suppose the piece is likely to receive many more performances.  It’s absolutely lovely; it’s true that it’s undemanding, indeed that is one of its great strengths, but it is luxurious, full of joy and deeply beautiful.  I’m so happy it has been recorded for album and have little doubt that it is destined to become a cornerstone of many James Horner fans’ collections.  It is so full of what made his music so appealing to his many fans – it plays like a valentine to them (us, I should say), a very personal extension of ideas heard in some of his film scores which is a delight.

Rating: ***** | |

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  1. mastadge (Reply) on Tuesday 30 June, 2015 at 00:19

    My first listen I was unimpressed. It seemed too easy to listen to – I don’t remember what my expectations where. But then I listened to the 3rd movement roughly 100 times and then moved backwards to listening to the whole thing. Gorgeous.

    I do wish that it could have been coupled with more Horner rarities than the Pärt and whatnot.

    Maybe if “Living in the Age of Airplanes” is a short enough score they can also include the 4th Horseman stuff as a bonus there.

  2. Tom Hudson (Reply) on Tuesday 30 June, 2015 at 00:37

    I hadn’t thought about possibly including Flight and The Fourth Horseman with Living in the Age of Airplanes. That makes sense. I had thought of initiating a campaign to get Flight released, as I consider it to be his magnum opus (among MANY great works). To fill out a disc (or two), I thought that perhaps collecting all of Horner’s works that evoked the spirit of flight might be a worthwhile study.

    Anyway, not related to your actual review, but mastadge’s response touches closely to something I care a lot about.

    As for the review, I agree whole-heartedly. The first few times I listened to it, it was only the third movement that moved me, but on return listens, I truly enjoy the simultaneous depth and accessibility of the two previous movements.

  3. James Southall (Reply) on Tuesday 30 June, 2015 at 00:39

    I know they’re nothing to do with each other, but I wonder if One Day in Auschwitz might be a possibility to release with Living in the Age of Airplanes. Are they both Discovery Channel productions?

  4. James Southall (Reply) on Tuesday 30 June, 2015 at 00:40

    And I really hope that Collage, the concerto for four horns, gets recorded and released.

  5. Matt C (Reply) on Tuesday 30 June, 2015 at 02:26

    I’m with you, James. I hope for all of the above to be recorded/released. It would be insane for the pieces to no at least be released on iTunes as singles or something. I would really love to hear Collage. I’m sure it’s magnificent.

  6. Pepper Skyberry (Reply) on Tuesday 30 June, 2015 at 02:39

    One of my favorite Horner compositions, ever 🙂

  7. Jerry (Reply) on Tuesday 30 June, 2015 at 18:36

    What about Gorecki inspiration? 🙂

  8. dominique (Reply) on Monday 20 July, 2015 at 21:50

    jerry, i totally agree with you…gorecki i was listening to! 😉

  9. tiago (Reply) on Monday 3 August, 2015 at 05:38

    Although this work was not meant to be a film score, Pas de Deux is the most “Hornerian” work Horner has done on the last few years, more than Wolf Totem and way more than Southpaw. It has a lot of things from his masterpieces from the 90s/early 2000s that made him so well regarded among his fans: a few piano phrases that resemble Deep Impact, Bicentennial Man and A Beautiful Mind, the nostalgic french horns and woodwinds from Titanic and The New World, the violin solos from Iris, and, of course, the Rocketeer-style finale.

    To put in a few words: a really beautiful work by Horner, and probably his swan song, along with Wolf Totem – I mean, until we have the confirmation that his music from The Magnificent Seven remake will really be on the film.

  10. ANDRÉ, Cape Town. (Reply) on Monday 16 November, 2015 at 01:03

    I discovered a new film composer – thanks to other compositions on the ‘Pas de Deux’ album. The last track, ‘Divenire’ by Italy’s LUDOVICO EINAUDI, is so beautiful that I put the track on repeat. The music, written in 2002, reminds of the gorgeous title theme from ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’ by CRAIG ARMSTSONG… and also resembles the scores of RACHEL PORTMAN and the classical works of both RALPH VAUGHAN WILLIAMS and GUSTAV HOLST when they celebrate their English heritage. There’s lots of info about EINAUDI [on Google] whose scores for both movies & TV have garnered awards. His score for the TV mini-series ‘Dr. Zhivago’ has been favourably compared to the MAURICE JARRE opus. James, if you or any Movie-Wave collectors have EINAUDI scores, please share critiques. With his emotionally rich ‘Divenire’ as a point of reference, it’s inconceivable that his music and name isn’t bandied around more often.