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John CORIGLIANO (b. 1938)
Symphony No. 1 (1989)

Stephen Hough (piano) John Sharp (cello)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim
Recorded at Orchestra Hall, Chicago, 15-17 March 1990
WARNER CLASSICS ELATUS 0927-49011-2 DDD [40:41]


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Although unquestionably symphonic in its overall conception, John Corigliano could equally have named his First Symphony, ‘Requiem Without Voices’, for in essence the work amounts to a large scale, four-movement orchestral requiem for the numerous friends and musical colleagues the composer has lost as a result of AIDS.

That Corigliano wears his heart on his sleeve is apparent from the very outset, for he approaches what for many would be a truly daunting task with a head-on fearlessness. He is equally open and lucid in his own booklet notes on the work, which are both detailed and informative and I would strongly recommend reading them thoroughly before listening to the symphony for the first time. I found the insight they gave invaluable.

In many ways it is the first movement, Apologue: of rage and remembrance, which encapsulates the emotional pendulum of both despair and nostalgia that is at the very core of the work. This is a movement of conflict, plunging into a psychological abyss, yet then sweeping away on a wave of flickering memories. The opening note of A in the violins and violas is crucially central to the work and recurs at various points throughout the symphony although the most extraordinary feature of the movement is Corigliano’s use of Leopold Godowsky’s transcription of Isaac Albéniz’s Tango, a favourite piece of the late concert pianist friend who was in Corigliano’s mind whilst composing. The theme is used both literally as well as influencing the melodic material of the slow central section of the movement, yet its presence feels entirely natural, the result truly haunting.

In point of fact, the first three movements all relate to specific lost friends, the second, Tarantella, being in memory of a music industry executive who was also an enthusiastic amateur pianist. The composer tells of writing a set of dances entitled Gazebo Dances for piano, four hands, dedicating the final movement, Tarantella, to his friend. The dictionary definition of a ‘tarantella’ is a dance that could cure a form of insanity attributed to the bite of the tarantula, a cutting irony as the composer’s friend was to become insane as a result of AIDS dementia. Corigliano’s music charts a gradual descent into mental turmoil, centred on the theme of his Tarantella, the music represents both the horrors of the hallucinatory images his friend suffered as well as the relief of the periods of lucidity in between. The closing manic, screaming bars are devastatingly disturbing and left me longing for the relative tranquillity of the third movement, Chaconne: Giulio’s Song.

The friendship here revolves around a cellist with whom the composer would often improvise. Listening to a tape of one of these improvisation sessions Corigliano discovered a melodic fragment that quite literally became the basis for "Giulio’s Song", hence the movement makes extended use of solo cello as well as the cello and double bass sections generally, who open the movement by introducing the chaconne theme. The improvisation melody forms one of several "musical remembrances" that the composer works into the music, very much the emotional heart of the symphony, and perhaps what can be viewed as the beautiful calm at the centre of the storm before the return of one of the principal themes from the first movement, this time transfigured into a funeral march.

If I have any reservations about the symphony then it is the final Epilogue that is at the centre of them, a brief apotheosis of the material from the previous movements including further references to the Godowsky/Albéniz and the Tarantella before the music fades away on the A with which the symphony commenced. Initially I could not help but feel a curious lack of substance here after the sheer intensity of the earlier movements although I am sure that this was exactly the composer’s intention. Further listening will no doubt reveal more.

My first reaction upon looking at the cover of this CD was dismay that Warner had chosen to release a disc with just one forty minute work when another major piece could easily have been included. Having listened to the symphony however my opinion has changed, for this music should stand alone exactly as it was intended, a disturbing and very real memorial. Few recent symphonies (the work was first heard thirteen years ago) will strike quite as directly at your heart as this does, for Corigliano has created a work that is intensely personal and deeply felt, but above all abundantly honest. The result, as emotionally shattering as it is, simply cries out to be heard and Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra give as powerfully convincing a reading as we are ever likely to hear. Highly recommended listening.

Christopher Thomas.


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