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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



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John CORIGLIANO (b. 1938)
A Dylan Thomas Trilogy (1960 revised 1999): Author’s Prologue (1) [4:55]; Fern Hill [14:29]; Author’s Prologue (2) [5:35]; Poem in October [14:38]; Poem on his Birthday [27:04]
Sir Thomas Allen (baritone); Ty Jackson (boy soprano); John Tessier (tenor)
Nashville Symphony Chorus/George Mabry
Nashville Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin
rec. Schermerhorn Symphony Center Nashville, Tennessee, USA, 20-24 December 2007 DDD
NAXOS 8.559394 [66:48]
Experience Classicsonline


This was an enigmatic CD to review. On the one hand the texts set by John Corigliano include some of my favourite poems from the works of Dylan Thomas. In fact, it was a reading of the author’s Poem in October that introduced me to his writings. Since finding a copy of the ‘Collected Poems’ in a Glasgow second-hand book shop, I soon found that the bleaker Poem on His Birthday and the more summery Fern Hill were also moving and important contributions to British literature. Therefore, as soon as I saw this CD, I knew that at least the words set were right up my street.

I have never (knowingly) heard any music by Mr. Corigliano. There is no particular reason for this, save it is not possible to know the music of every composer, and I guess I have just not got round to exploring, or even discovering his music. So this was going to be an adventure in more ways than one.

Having decided that the text was impressive, I was a little disconcerted by the scale and form of the work. Three things niggled me. Firstly, it appeared to be a piece that had been written over a considerable period of time (1959-1999) – so nearly forty years. I wondered what would be the impact of the composer’s musical development on the sum of the parts. Secondly I noticed that the work was long – nearly 67 minutes for four poems set. I asked myself if it would hold my attention. Lastly I read that there were narrated sections of the work alongside settings for baritone, tenor and boy soprano and chorus. I wondered what the formal balance would be like, whether it would be internally consistent.

And finally I listened to the piece – straight through, giving it my best shot, no distractions. I should not have liked it. As I listened, everything in me kept telling me that it was too disjointed and too diverse in style. In fact, it often seems to be parodying other genres; it is in danger of becoming one long “stylistic caricature". Yet I was totally blown away by it. It is stunning, impressive, wonderful, beautiful, disturbing and virtually every other adjective I can think of. It is somehow or other, a masterpiece.

Its history is complicated. The first section to be written and played was Fern Hill, which was composed in 1959-60 when Corigliano was only 22 years old. He wrote that what captivated him about these words were the poet’s ‘young and easy’ summers on the farm of the same name.

Ten years later the Chamber Music Society of the Lincoln Center requested a new work for its opening season. This time the composer chose Poem in October. Five years later, after a deal of personal disappointments the composer decided to set the dark Poem on his Birthday. In this poem Dylan Thomas does not celebrate his age, but ‘spurns it’. Corigliano believed that he had completed the Trilogy. In 1976, the work was premiered in the Washington National Cathedral.

However, the music did not remain static. Fortunately the composer’s life situation improved and he began to feel at peace with himself. He notes that now he did not feel the work was either emotionally or formally complete. He believed that the Poem in October and Fern Hill were “both pastorals, [and] sounded too similar to each other to be effective played consecutively, and yet too different from the mature setting of Poem on His Birthday to which they should lead”.

So in the late 1990s, Corigliano completed the work. He realised that although he had written an oratorio, it did in fact have operatic overtones. He decided to introduce an adult (the narrator and baritone) to interpret his ‘future through his past’. The two ‘pastoral’ poems would then come to be seen as memories and not as ‘real-time’ events. Therefore, the listener has to understand them from the perspective of the Birthday poem. To make this transition formally sound Corigliano chose a new text from Dylan Thomas to link the original three movements together. He chose Thomas’s penultimate work, the Author’s Prologue to The Collected Poems. This gave the final structure and form to this wide-ranging work.

What is this work all about? It is really a journey – from birth to death. It represents the three stages of Manhood. In its final form, the work opens with the Sir Thomas Allen, as narrator and singer, a large chorus and orchestra exploring ‘This day winding down now, At God speeded summer’s end …’ Then follows the beautiful Fern Hill scored for chamber orchestra and boy soprano. This is truly pastoral music that sounds more like Vaughan Williams (but not quite) than American avant-garde! Pierre Ruhe in the Washington Post (March 1999) suggested that the music has “familiar homespun chord progressions, so fresh and innocently American. Musically the Welsh countryside is nowhere in sight.” The second part of the Prologue is in complete contrast. Much more modern sounding music well parodies the ‘hullaballoing clan, Agape with woe …’ The Poem in October seems to owe much to the styles of Benjamin Britten and Igor Stravinsky. It is very thoughtful music that explores the thought of this poem in a sympathetic way. There are many very beautiful passages here.

Lastly the Poem on his Birthday. This is the longest section of the work. Richard Whitehouse quoted in a review on these pages has suggested that this section “sounds like the undigested influence of Britten’s War Requiem at key junctures”. I believe that this is an appropriate comparison. Yet, I consider that this music works and gives an impressive and inspiring – if somewhat challenging - conclusion to Corigliano’s massive meditation on the poems of Dylan Thomas and the journey from life to death.

In spite of the eclectic nature of this music, the fact that one minute it can sound like Britten’s Spring Symphony and another like Sir Paul McCartney’s Standing Stone, somehow it works as a piece of music. It is superbly performed by the soloists, the Nashville Symphony and their conductor Leonard Slatkin. There appears to be an inherent, but largely intangible constructive principle that stops this work descending into a series of disjointed tableaux. I cannot quite fathom what it is - it is probable that it is Dylan Thomas’s poetry that acts as the common thread.

I feel the same way about this piece that I did after first hearing William Bolcom’s Songs of Innocence and Experience: I am in the presence of a great work, which somehow should not be a masterpiece, but actually is. Herein lies the enigma.

John France

 


 


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