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John CORIGLIANO (b.1938)
Snapshot: Circa 1909 (2003) [5:22]
A Black November Turkey (1972/2003) [2:55]
String Quartet (1995) [32:22]
Jefferson FRIEDMAN (b.1974)
String Quartet No.2 (1998) [21:39]
Corigliano Quartet (Michael Jinsoo Lim, Lina Bahn (violins); Melia Watras (viola); Jeffrey Zeigler (cello))
rec. 26-27 October 2004, American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York. DDD


This fine CD of world premiere recordings (apart from the Corigliano quartet) proves an interesting and educational experience. Not only do we sample Corigliano’s style in relatively light mood in the first two miniatures contrasted against the dark and complex language of his remarkable String Quartet but we also get to hear an accomplished work by one of Corigliano’s pupils, Jefferson Friedman. 

Corigliano is arguably the best known and most feted composer of his generation. Honours include a Grawemeyer Award for his haunting, terrifying and now widely performed First Symphony, a Pulitzer Prize for the Second Symphony and an Academy Award for his score for François Girard’s film The Red Violin.  Corigliano’s music is often uncompromising and complex but always somehow transparent and directly communicative. It is hard not to have an immediate emotional response to his major works – even if that experience is sometimes a little uncomfortable in its intensity. 

The first two works on this CD show the composer in nostalgic and playful lights respectively. Snapshot: Circa 1909 was written as result of a request from the Elements Quartet for a piece inspired by a photograph. Corigliano chose a family heirloom which had always been dear to his heart – a picture of his father and uncle playing a violin and guitar duet in about 1909. Corigliano’s father was only about 8 years old in the photograph but went on to become concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic for nearly thirty years, playing under Toscanini and Bernstein and acting as soloist in many concerto performances. Snapshot opens with the second violin playing a wistful melody accompanied by the other instruments pizzicato, in imitation of his uncle’s guitar. The whole piece is infused with a dreamlike quality and it is easy to sense the affection the composer obviously felt for his subject matter. The photograph in question is thoughtfully reproduced on the front cover of the CD booklet. A nice touch. 

A Black November Turkey started life as long ago as 1972 as an a cappella setting of a strange poem by Richard Wilbur; a bitter and savage farmyard allegory which does not have a happy ending. 

The String Quartet of 1995 must count as one of Corigliano’s greatest achievements. Cast in five movements, it takes the listener on a roller-coaster of the emotions, none of them wholly happy. Corigliano must have thought highly of this work as, when asked in 2000 by the Boston Symphony Orchestra for a piece to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the orchestra’s residence in Symphony Hall, he decided to re-cast the Quartet, re-writing, expanding and scoring for string orchestra. In its original form the Quartet is one of the toughest in the repertoire. It was written for the Cleveland Quartet for its farewell tour before disbanding and in it Corigliano fully explored the wealth of compositional and musical possibilities that writing for such an intimate ensemble allows. Binding the Quartet together is a motto of even repetitions of a single note, a series of broken-up minor thirds and concentration on four pitch centres, as well as an arch-like architecture that it shares with Bartók’s Fourth Quartet; first and last, second and fourth movements related, with the third Nocturne (Bartók’s ‘night music’) acting as a central lynch-pin. To my ears, Bartók’s ghost was invoked many times during this masterfully-conceived quartet. This is evident from the outset with the interior arch-like form of the eerie first movement, recalling Bartók’s movements of this kind. This is followed by a wild, dissonant, rhythmically-complex Scherzo and an almost static but endlessly riveting Nocturne. Corigliano has always been fascinated by counterpoint and, in particular, the fugue. This fugal fourth movement (marked ‘severe’) shares much of the vehemence of the earlier Scherzo. The composer adds to his contrapuntal task, however (and that of the four players), by having the various fugal entries enter in different tempos, the whole effect being a strange combination of contrapuntal order and organised chaos. This constant battle between coherence and apparent disintegration is almost a metaphor for this Quartet as a whole. Not surprisingly, this fierce fugue eventually burns itself out and dissolves into the final Postlude which unwinds almost as a mirror-image of the opening Prelude, therefore completing the arch.

It is interesting to hear Jefferson Friedman’s Second Quartet immediately after that of his former teacher. Friedman seems hardly less accomplished and certainly no less lauded – born only in 1974, he has already been awarded the 2001 ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Award, the 2001 Palmer Dixson Prize, and the 2001 Juilliard Orchestra Competition. He is also the recipient of the 2004 Rome Prize Fellowship in Musical Composition from the American Academy in Rome. The Second Quartet won the ASCAP Leo Kaplan award and the BMI Student Composer Award in 2000. 

Friedman’s brief programme note declares that much of his music is programmatic and describes the Second Quartet as a ‘diary entry’. He does not expand on this any more than to say he wrote the work during his studies with John Corigliano, without whose guidance, Friedman says, the composition of this Quartet would not have been possible. One is immediately struck from the outset by the energy surging through this music. It shows a similar intensity to Corigliano’s music and the spectre of Bartók is still very evident – down the ‘snap’ pizzicatos which abound near the beginning of the opening movement. Yet, this is a new and individual voice – and one which knows how to communicate clearly. As well as the influences of Bartók and Corigliano, I also detected faint echoes of Debussy and Ravel, a little in the restless slow second movement but especially in the third movement finale. There is also an aching lyricism in the music that reminded me that this young composer was Corigliano’s pupil. 

These works for string quartet could hardly wish for better advocates than the Corigliano Quartet. It was formed in 1996 to concentrate largely on new music and has won its own share of plaudits and awards in its short career. The intense musical and technical prowess of the Corigliano Quartet’s playing is rewarded here with a very natural-sounding recording in which every nuance is captured beautifully without there ever being any artificial spotlighting or over-close placement of microphones. 

In so many ways this CD of first-class string quartets by American composers, teacher and pupil, yields many rewards, especially on repeated listening. I urge lovers of the medium to be brave and sample this wonderful disc, especially at Naxos’s giveaway price. 

Derek Warby 




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