I was interested in this new Naxos release for the Hailstork Piano Concerto. Seeing the Elfman Violin Concerto as its coupling - and given top billing at that - has me baffled for several reasons.
The most obvious is that this is the second recording violinist Sandy Cameron has made of Danny Elfman’s Violin Concerto. And it’s the only work I can find that she’s ever recorded. So one wonders why?
Her first recording of it was made in 2018 for SONY with John Mauceri conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. I would venture a guess that it is probably as definitive a recording of the piece you’re going to get. The RSNO commissioned the work and Elfman collaborated with Cameron on the solo part after hearing her playing in the circus band for a Cirque du Soleil show he composed some music for. A year later, she plays it in concert with JoAnn Falletta and Naxos is on site to record it. I suppose she was touring around playing that piece everywhere.
I admire some Elfman soundtracks, particularly his Men In Black score, and I think The Nightmare Before Christmas is ingenious. So I was curious about his violin concerto when the SONY was released in 2019. And I admit I had it in my collection and I bought the Naxos anyway. But not for the Elfman; for Hailstork’s Piano Concerto. (And, coincidentally, it was the coupling on the SONY which was the original enticement there as well – Elfman's Piano Quartet, which is a terrific piece.)
Let’s be realistic. Elfman’s “Eleven Eleven” (so called because it just so happens to be exactly 1,111 measures long) is a pleasant, mildly interesting, over-long (40+ minutes) contemporary violin concerto, competently written by a movie soundtrack composer for a circus band player. I don't mean to be disparaging, but it is what it is. Does it really deserve two recordings, played by the same violinist, within a span of just 3 years? Perhaps.
But I do wish Naxos had instead recorded another piano concerto with Stewart Goodyear while he was in town there in Buffalo. (He's such a fantastic and versatile player.) Or better yet, a piece by another African American composer to go with the Hailstork. However, I read in the tiny print at the bottom of the back cover that both concertos were recorded live at two separate concerts, separated by 3 years - the Elfman in 2019 and the Hailstork in 2022. So this album is all about JoAnn Falletta, and that’s probably the most logical explanation for why we've got what we’ve got.
And one more thing before I move on. I have to admonish Naxos for their rather disingenuous blurb on the back of the CD where they declare these are both “brand new concertos”. They aren’t. The Elfman was written in 2017 and has already been recorded before, and the Hailstork was written in 1992 – over 30 years ago!
I was interested in comparing the two recordings of the violin concerto, as I remember being less than impressed with it on the earlier SONY release. I started by comparing the timings of the two and notice that all 4 movements are slightly quicker with Falletta – sometimes shaving off as much as an entire minute. Some of this might be the spontaneity of the live concert coming through, but I’m not sure it’s enough to warrant another CD release as if it’s a fresh rethinking of the piece. (It’s not). Yet there’s no denying that all 4 movements sound a bit more lively and engaging with Falletta in charge. Not only that, the Naxos recording, despite being made at a “live” concert, is in some ways more natural than the SONY. And let’s examine that a bit more closely.
I read in the booklet that this piece is written for “amplified” violin. Now, is that because its dedicatee, Sandy Cameron’s sound is too small for a concerto setting and Elfman decided it was OK to give her a little boost, as she surely was used to having in the circus band? I wonder because I can hear nothing in either recording which would indicate amplification was warranted - musically or otherwise. (For example, there are no special effects which would benefit from being amplified like those used by George Crumb in his Black Angels, scored for electrified string quartet.)
Falletta’s orchestra on Naxos is much more textured, colorful and alluring than the RSNO is on SONY. And the orchestra fills and defines the hall acoustic much more realistically. However, the solo violin sounds peculiar during the entire opening Grave section and it wasn't until after reading the booklet that I realized what I'm hearing is the electronic artificiality of an amplified violin. Ick. Fortunately, it does not persist everywhere, but it does taint some of the aching lyricism of the slow movement as well. I am mystified why this is utilized at all.
Listening to the SONY immediately after the Naxos, the violin tone is firmer, but I immediately notice a flat, upfront perspective, with the orchestra and the violin occupying the same space in a plane right at the front of the speakers. This airless wall of sound is not terribly realistic (or natural), especially compared to the spacious, 3-dimensional loveliness of the Naxos house sound in Buffalo.
Regarding the quicker tempos, the first movement is the least affected and is very similar on both recordings. And is decidedly too long for its material in both readings (clocking in at nearly 14 minutes). It alternates between lyrical passages and jaunty sections of the stomping rhythms characteristic of the composer's film music.
The 2nd movement is more exciting on Naxos, if also just a bit scrambling. I thought it sounded more natural - more “right” - on SONY, with a slightly more relaxed tempo reminiscent of Prokofiev. (In either case, it too goes on way too long.) Similarly in the 4th movement, the SONY, at a slightly more manageable tempo, portrays the giocoso marking more so than on the later reading. Both display an intriguing Shostakovichian spikiness in the writing which is surely the highlight of the entire piece.
It is in the slow 3rd movement where the much quicker pace on Naxos scores a distinct advantage. Falletta establishes a more moving tempo which is entirely favorable, allowing the music to flow more naturally. Mauceri is brooding and curiously hesitant, which tends to impede the natural outpouring of expression. He establishes an atmosphere of anticipation, much like a foreboding scene in a movie, but purely as music, it sounds a bit contrived. And when the violin enters, it really is unnaturally forward and larger-than-life. (Perhaps that's the amplified violin rearing its ugly head again). However, that is preferable to the electronic thinness which frequents her tone on Naxos.
After spending too much time on this, my general observation is that the live remake is a bit more involving but my view of the piece remains unchanged. It is a pleasant, largely unmemorable violin concerto which I enjoyed hearing (even a second time) but likely will never listen to again.
Now to the Piano Concerto - and the real reason for acquiring this CD.
This is a marvelous work, cast in 3 continuous movements played without pause. The first begins with some rhapsodic richness reminiscent of Rachmaninoff but more chromatically enterprising. It soon takes off in a new direction with rhythmic energy and passages of engaging, incisive articulation, developing some wonderful interplay between soloist and orchestra. The entire opening section sounds rather more Russian than American, punctuated with some Walton-like spikiness and brass interjections along with harmonic undertones of Hindemith. Prokofiev even makes an appearance here and there. A beautiful melancholy takes over, eventually leading seamlessly into a pensive Adagio, which is heartfelt, melodious and very moving. Here on full display is the characteristic American gift of melody and Stewart Goodyear relishes its singing lines, with glorious legato playing.
This leads to a very brief Lento of the finale which almost immediately takes flight in a very Walton-like vivace. The tempo feels absolutely perfect (i.e. not too fast), building tension and momentum, culminating in some passages of thrilling bravura, before a sudden interruption returns us to a slow, Rachmaninoff-ian, rapturous respite as we approach the end. Hailstork then finishes it off with an all-too-brief, exhilarating flourish. Pianist and orchestra alike display plenty of fireworks and enthusiasm, and the piece leaves us satisfied and wishing there was more.
This is a glorious concerto which makes a lasting impression and has absolutely everything going for it - memorable melodies, rich, adventurous harmonies, dazzling pianistic displays, and brilliant orchestration. It engages the orchestra almost as if in a showpiece; surely any group would be eager to learn it. The solo part does not sound enormously difficult and should therefore be easily accommodated by many a concert pianist. It is endlessly varied and thoroughly enjoyable to listen to. Moreover, it isn’t too long for the average concert-goer’s attention span and deserves to be heard everywhere.
I have always admired JoAnn Falletta. She is an imaginative, energetic and truly inspiring conductor (and worlds away better than the mediocre Marin Alsop; I have never understood her persistent popularity.) Falletta is marvelous in every recording of hers I’ve heard and this one is no exception. With the fabulous Stewart Goodyear at the keyboard and Falletta on the podium, there could be no better advocates for bringing this concerto to light and affording it the prominence it deserves.
I noted earlier how good the recorded sound is and it is especially praise-worthy in the piano concerto, particularly as it is a live concert. Through both concerts, audience noise is virtually nonexistent and applause is mercifully absent.
Despite my criticisms of the Elfman (and somewhat frivolous comments regarding this violin player), this is yet another important and rewarding CD in the ongoing American Classics series from Naxos. Even if you already have the earlier SONY recording of the violin concerto, you owe it to yourself to hear this fantastic piano concerto.