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
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.