John CORIGLIANO (b.1938)
Circus Maximus: Symphony No.3 for large wind ensemble (2003) [35:43]
Gazebo Dances for band (1972) [17:06]
University of Texas Wind Ensemble/Jerry Junkin
rec. Bass Concert Hall, Austin Texas, 2006
DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and LPCM Stereo
The review is of the DTS-HD tracks
NAXOS BLURAY AUDIO NBD0008 [52.54]
There are two distinct issues with this disc: the music and the recording. Readers of MusicWeb International want to know what to expect from two unknown works by a rarely heard composer. Your reviewer would however be failing in his duty if he did not herald the arrival of a 'new' format for music.
The music first. The symphony is scored for a large wind-band which is detailed in the insert giving not only instrumentation but a diagram of its distribution around the large auditorium at the University of Texas. As it is the composer’s intention that we are surrounded by the players and impacted from all angles, the DTS Master soundtrack is the one to hear. The opening leaps out from behind the listener and much of the first three movements come from discrete groups of musicians placed behind and to the sides. The work fully deserves the title 'symphony' because the themes announced in the early stages are developed extensively in proper symphonic style culminating in recalls of earlier music near the end. Corigliano writes about his wish to draw parallels between the shows at the Ancient Roman Circus Maximus and the current preoccupation with an increasingly intrusive media pandering to the lowest common denominator through 'reality' shows. Whilst we may not feed the religious to the lions, we do seem to watch public humiliation with greater and greater relish. The idea also gave him the excuse he sought to surround his audience with performers. For me the music works quite well and is certainly not hard to enjoy even if it is a bit nerve-racking awaiting the next unexpectedly angled assault. The two Night Music movements are reminiscent of Mahler's pairing in the Seventh Symphony with their fierce activity but here the two nights are of nature and of the city. Night Music 1 is atmospheric but more than just sound-effects because it is thematically linked to what has gone before, particularly the 'primitive calls' heard in the Introitus. Night Music 2 serves as a scherzo for his Symphony, full of dance rhythms and punctuated by fierce outbursts culminating in a climax of quite devastating impact. This is followed by the reflective Prayer and a short but dramatic coda Veritas. The work closes with a gun-shot for which detailed instructions are given in the score, just in case anyone should try to use the 'wrong' gun! The Gazebo Dances are orchestrated from a set of piano four-hand pieces and scored for a more normal wind-band. They are very agreeable with the easy charm of Malcolm Arnold's light music and as beautifully recorded as the main work.
To focus on the recording and the medium. This is not the first music issue on Blu-Ray but it is the first from mass-market leaders Naxos and they have announced several more including four Dvorák symphonies. Clearly they are seriously testing out the market for a medium which will not play on anything except a Blu-Ray-capable player, thus the notice on the packaging about it not working on a CD or standard DVD player. Given that the classical market is a tiny fraction of the CD market, that modern classical music is a fraction of that fraction, and finally that Blu-Ray is a fraction of the DVD market, Naxos have set themselves a huge task to sell more than a handful of any one disc in this series. This 2006 recording was made in 24-bit 88.2 kHz and this fact is emblazoned across the top of the cover as if it mattered. What you hear is not 24-bit / 88.2 kHz, that was the digital format for the failed DVD-Audio market, but DTS High Definition Master Audio and that provides 24-bit 96 kHz in 6 channels: 5 surround and one for the subwoofer if you have one. Naxos made a series of DVD-A discs a few years back, thus the present recording format; then they tried out SACD - yet another format. Both failed because few people had the equipment to play the discs and Naxos withdrew from that market. Blu-Ray is different because it is possible to play these music-only discs on any Blu-Ray video equipped home cinema system. How many people will purchase both the latest Hollywood blockbuster and John Corigliano's latest symphony remains to be seen! This particular issue is very well recorded indeed. I would go so far as to say it is one of the best I've ever heard. Since the music demands actual surround distribution of forces the use of the extra channels is not merely self indulgence by the engineers. The dynamic range on the disc is little short of frightening. If you do not jump when the music starts you have not turned the volume up far enough and you will not hear the quietest passages, of which there are plenty. Why the disc requests contact with the internet I do not know. I tried saying yes and no for two playings and detected no change in facilities. Maybe someone somewhere in Naxos marketing has noted the fact that I played the disc. I will be very interested to hear the Dvorák symphonies which make very different, much subtler, demands on a surround recording.
Excellent performances of some interesting and occasionally impressive music. The recording is a new state of the art and is the first of a series of such recordings from Naxos.
see also CD reviews by Kirk McElhearn and Benn Martin