Corigliano: A Dylan Thomas Trilogy
Royal Festival Hall, London, Saturday 6 November 1999, Patrick Burrowes,treble John Daszak, tenor William Dazeley, baritone BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra Leonard Slatkin, conductor
Its good news that Leonard Slatkin will be taking over from Sir Andrew Davis as Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra next Autumn. Similarly catholic in his repertoire, he will no doubt give the American symphonists some timely representation in London. Two years ago, he brought William Bolcolm's massive setting of Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience to the RFH, a work whose flashes of inspiration were buried under a welter of stylistic caricature. John Corigliano's treatment of Dylan Thomas is a similarly large-scale undertaking: playing for 75 minutes and setting four of the poet's most personal texts, with their birth-to-death perspective on creativity.
In his insightful programme-note, Corigliano traces the evolution of A Dylan Thomas Trilogy over the course of his career. Fern Hill, Thomas's keen recollection of childhood summers, was originally composed in 1959-60, followed in 1969 by the more concentrated setting of Poem in October, Thomas's ambivalent reflections on his life at 30. 1975 saw Corigliano countering his own relative 'mid-life' crisis by turning to Poem on His Birthday, Thomas's dark and desperate feelings at 35: his end already envisaged. The three settings made a logical triptych, but Corigliano was keen to offset the prevailing pastoral mood of the earlier two pieces, and found the means to do so as recently as 1996, with Author's Prologue; almost Thomas's last creation and full of battered defiance in the face of the darkness overwhelming him. One half of this symmetrically structured poem introduces each of the first two settings, leaving the powerful sentiments of Poem on His Birthday to round off the work conclusively.
So much for the work's genesis. Stylistically, Corigliano has long seemed a composer of obvious sincerity and conviction, whose music rarely sounds other than a second-hand reflection of more potent models. As it happens, Fern Hill, lyrical and unpretentious, if with the shadow of Barber's Knoxville seldom absent, is one of his most attractive works, particularly in the original chamber scoring [available on Nimbus NI5449]. Poem in October is more personal and resourceful, with beguiling writing for divided strings and a telling response to the poem's emotional plangency. For all the cathartic impact its composition must have had for the composer, however, Poem on His Birthday is a disappointment: protracted and overemphatic, with what sounds like the undigested influence of Britten's War Requiem at key junctures. Here and in Author's Prologue, a paradox arises in the desire to 'set' texts which are musically self-sufficient. The generalised bluster of Corigliano's response only diffuses the power of Thomas's poetry, rendering its emotions crude and blatant.
That the work failed to make a convincing impression was clearly not the fault of Slatkin, who encouraged the composer to expand his work into its definitive form, and who obtained a whole-hearted response from the BBC forces; the chorus in particular rising to the challenge with assurance. William Dazeley coped heroically with the orchestra's onslaughts, while John Daszak belied his late substituting with some finely judged expression in Poem in October. Patrick Burrowes was suitably innocent sounding in Fern Hill. A pity then that the work itself conveyed only a limited sense of the integrity forged out of incoherence that Thomas's verse possesses.
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