- 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.
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.