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John CORIGLIANO (b. 1938)
Symphony No. 2 for string orchestra (2000) [44’58]. The Mannheim Rocket (2001) [10’51]. Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/John Storgårds. Rec. Finlandia Hall, Finland, in November 2003. DDD
ONDINE ODE1039-2 [56’02]

John Corigliano was awarded the 2001 Pulitzer Prize in music for his Second Symphony. Its UK première at the Barbican did not make a huge impression on me (review), but it is good to have the opportunity for more leisurely consideration.

The Second Symphony was commissioned by the Boston Symphony in honour of the 100th anniversary of Symphony Hall. Corigliano effectively re-scored his Second String Quartet for string orchestra, making a comparison between the symphonic nature of that quartet and Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge (this reviewer, however, would have more qualms about speaking Beethoven and Corigliano in the same breath). At one point Corigliano stated that he would never write a symphony, but a heartfelt response to the AIDS pandemic changed all that with the First Symphony. His excuse here is that ‘the string symphony is another, rarer, animal’.

So how does, indeed, the reluctant symphonist fare?. The immediate reference point seems to be Bartók (Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta in the first movement, and that composer’s more earthy side in the ‘slashing’ (Corigliano’s term) chords of the second. But there is a distinct Pendereckian slant to proceedings, too (the scamperings in the fourth movement in particular - it would be interesting to see if the notation indicates controlled aleatorism). There is more than a hint of Stravinsky at times, too, particularly the Stravinsky of The Soldier’s Tale in the solo violin writing.

The third movement stands in high contrast to the hustle and bustle of the second. Coriglianian stasis is lovingly represented here (the recording is superb - just listen to the warmth of the solo cello). The implied rigour of the fourth movement (a Fugue) is proclaimed by the assertive nature of the Theme. The composer describes this as ‘anti-contrapuntal’ - instead of the usual process, a single theme is heard in separate voices moving in different tempi. This is actually fairly effective, and Corigliano builds the music to a significant climax. A Postlude includes a sweet-toned solo violin.

Towards the end, there is indeed the feeling that one is nearing the end of a journey (‘… the stark registral distance between the lower strings and a high solo violin is meant to impart a feeling of farewell’). But the question is, just how revealing was the trip?.

Of more import than that offered by The Mannheim Rocket, that’s for sure. The title, of course, refers to the stock-in-trade of Mannheim composers of the eighteenth century and refers to an ascending scale or arpeggio rockets upwards. Coriglaino candidly offers his ‘take’ on this gesture: ‘a giant 18th-century wedding-cake-rocket, commandeered by the great Baron von Munchausen, and its marvellous journey to the heavens and back’.

Actually the work was composed for the Mannheim orchestra of today, so everyone’s happy. Unsurprisingly, quotes abound. One could be forgiven for missing the appearance of the originator of the rocket itself, Johann Wenzel Anton Stamitz (1717-57), and his Sinfonia in E flat (La Melodia Germanica No. 3). But you’d have to be dead to miss some of the quotes, as he works his way through 200 years of German music - predictably, possibly, the ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ makes it (‘Wagner tries to halt things, but the rocket is uncontrollable: even he can’t stop it’). Meistersinger pops up also.

The problem is that the writing is so descriptive. Corigliano, with laudable musical honesty, makes no attempt to disguise the work’s vacuity, rather preferring to revel in the fun of it all. Fun it certainly is, but just how often will anyone want to hear this? Once, I suspect, is enough. The Helsinki Philharmonic seem to have a ball, though.

The glory of this disc is actually the recording, which is both warm and detailed, giving off a lovely sense of space (Producer Seppo Siirala; Engineer Enno Mäemets).

Corigliano fans will not hesitate, I’m sure. For the rest of us, there is more than a sniff of the insubstantial about it all.

Colin Clarke

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