John CORIGLIANO (b.1938)
Winging It: Piano Music
Winging It: Improvisations (2008) [13:25]
Chiaroscuro, for two pianos (tuned a quarter-tone apart) (1997) [11:01]
Fantasia on an Ostinato (1985) [11:26]
Kaleidoscope, for two pianos (1959) [5:41]
Etude Fantasy (1976) [17:33]
Ursula Oppens (piano)
Jerome Lowenthal (piano II)
rec. American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, 7-10 December 2010. DDD
CEDILLE RECORDS CDR 90000 123 [59:30]

This, perhaps surprisingly, is the first CD dedicated entirely to the piano works of American composer John Corigliano. The pieces in this recital by Ursula Oppens with Jerome Lowenthal cover fifty years, an amazing span in any case, but all the more so given the fact that Corigliano is still very much alive and composing! There are three sizeable works for solo piano and two shorter ones for two. All have been recorded before, usually a few times, apart from Winging It, which here receives its premiere.

The most strikingly original work on the disc is Chiaroscuro. The tuning alteration on one of the pianos allows Corigliano to open up a soundworld that is from another world, but there are many other dazzling effects and techniques besides. Corigliano says in his notes that the final section quotes a Bach chorale, but it sounds more like an American folksong. The other duo, Kaleidoscope, a "colorful mosaic of changing symmetrical patterns", is a lively, occasionally rag-like student work.

The Fantasia on an Ostinato, a clever, partly performer-determined work based on the opening phrase of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, is one of Corigliano's most recorded pieces, both for piano and in its orchestral arrangement. He calls it his "only experiment in 'minimalist' technique", but such a definition does it a disservice - there are no lazy Reichisms here. The Etude Fantasy, a set of five separate Etudes arranged and linked to form a coherent musical statement, has also been recorded several times, most recently by Michael Shepard on Harmonia Mundi (HMU 907475, 2007). This is Corigliano's most fiendish work for piano, and quite probably his best.

Finally, the title piece, Winging It, is a set of three 'improvisations', much easier to listen to than it is to follow Corigliano's longwinded explanation in the notes of how they were created at the keyboard, MIDI recorded, transcribed, re-notated, edited and re-composed, with the results finally handed over to Oppens to first premiere in 2009, and then record here. The three items are not especially sensational or revelatory - with the first and last only three minutes long, they could hardly be that - but there is enough material to take the listener through to the end at least without discomfiture.

This recital is another feather in the cap for Ursula Oppens, who has devoted her very creditable career to championing the music of living composers, particularly Americans. Most notably she recorded Elliott Carter's complete piano music for Cedille to celebrate his 100th birthday - see review. Throughout this programme both Oppens and Lowenthal are equal in strength, stamina and technique to pianists half their age, and their duo playing - rehearsed countless times before in recordings and performance - is spectacular.

Like Cedille's last release, the music of Stacy Garrop (review), this disc is beautifully recorded, and the CD booklet is just the way it ought to be, printed on high quality paper, thoughtfully and clearly laid out, with detailed notes on the works written by Corigliano himself, and plenty of biographical information on the soloists, even if the tone of all the writing can hardly be described as humble. In fact, Corigliano is one of American Academe's dearest darlings - rare is the critical review on his side of the Atlantic that fails to gush. Almost every new work of his in the last few years has won an award, often a serious prize - a Pulitzer, Grawemeyer, three Grammies, and an Oscar. Corigliano for one seems to believe the hype, perhaps even to script it sometimes: his website biography describes him as "perhaps one of the most important symphonists of his era", and the booklet text maintains that he "continues to add to one of the richest, most unusual, and most widely celebrated bodies of work any composer has created over the last forty years." That is still not the end of it: "Attentive listening to this music reveals an unconfined imagination, one which has taken traditional notions like "symphony" or "concerto" and redefined them in a uniquely transparent idiom".

If all this braggadocio is less than endearing, there is at least an element of truth underpinning it. Corigliano's piano music is not as important as his orchestral music by any measure - indeed, Corigliano admits to being no great pianist - but the works on this disc, especially as performed by Oppens and Lowenthal, show considerable art and craft, technique and originality.

As good as it is technically, at just under an hour the CD is a bit on the short side. Corigliano is not a prolific composer for the piano, but this is not all his music, despite the fact that his own website homepage labels it "Corigliano's complete piano music" at the time of writing. Cedille might easily have asked Oppens and Lowenthal to record Corigliano's 1972 Gazebo Dances, a 16 minute piece for four hands which has been recorded a few times, but not by this marvellous pair and not for nearly ten years. At 75 minutes, this would then have been an almost unassailably irresistible disc.

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These works show considerable art and craft, technique and originality.