John CORIGLIANO (b. 1938)
Conjurer - Concerto for Percussion and String Orchestra with optional Brass (2007) [36:27]
Vocalise (1999)* [21:16]
Dame Evelyn Glennie (percussion); *Hila Plitmann (soprano)
*Electronics produced and performed by Mark Baechle
Albany Symphony/David Alan Miller
rec. 13 March 2011, Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, Troy, New York; *22 May 2011, Experimental Media Performing Arts Center, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York. DDD.
NAXOS AMERICAN CLASSICS 8.559757 [57:43]
Prolific he may be but John Corigliano is no conveyor-belt composer, churning out eminently forgettable pieces to order. I much admired The Red Violin Caprices andSonata for violin and Piano (review), which speak with a distinct, original, and confident voice. Ironically, in his engaging liner-notes the composer admits he was none too sure about writing a percussion concerto. That he has done so, with that feisty phenomenon Evelyn Glennie as soloist, is cause for celebration. Vocalise, which includes soprano and electronics, is no less intriguing; indeed, my first listen to both works left me in no doubt as to the range and quality of Corigliano’s musical imagination.
The concerto, a set of short cadenzas followed by movements with titles such as Wood,Metal and Skin, mixes two different groups in artful and interesting ways. For instance, in Wood the pitched instruments (xylophone and marimba) are combined and contrasted with unpitched ones (wood block, claves, log drum); the result is music of sinew and strength. That Conjurer comes across with such conviction is due in no small part to Glennie’s white-hot playing and the first-rate recording.
I simply can’t remember when I’ve heard percussion arrays captured with such realism; just sample the scalp-tingling combination of tubular bells, tam-tams and suspended cymbals in the cadenza to Metal. Even the quiet, yearning orchestral part that follows has a tonal sophistication that I don’t usually hear in Naxos recordings. Climaxes are thrilling and fatigue-free, and the soundstage is wide and wondrous. Goodness, what mellifluous and haunting sounds composer and soloist conjure up here; the taut beats and varied rhythms of Skin are no less engrossing or accomplished.
It’s little wonder that Conjurer scooped the instrumental solo award at this year’s Grammys; whatever you might think these industry junkets they definitely got it right this time. These high standards prevail in Vocalise, in which soprano Hila Plitmann makes a secure, soaring protagonist. After the hot, sweaty virtuosity of Skin this substantial filler comes as a cooling zephyr. The initially sinuous, ondes-like vocal lines segue nicely with Mark Baechle’s discreet and sensitive electronics. Indeed, the composer’s ‘millennial message’ - it’s time for classical and electronic music to merge - is couched in the most convincing terms.
What an aural and musical pleasure this album has turned out to be; and how refreshing it is to find contemporary music that’s accessible without stooping to the anodyne. Even more appealing is the lack of pretension in both Corigliano’s liner-notes and the works themselves; how often have I had to wade through hefty treatises on what the composer intended, only to find I’m none the wiser? The recording teams need to take a bow as well, for this is as near a demo disc as I’ve ever encountered from Naxos.
Fresh, vital, vigorous; contemporary music of quality, winningly played.
And another review ...
In his booklet notes John Corigliano explains why writing a percussion concerto posed such a challenge, not least to avoid making the concerto ‘sound like orchestral pieces with an extra-large percussion section.’ He also points out the danger that in percussion concertos which he’s heard ‘The melodic interest always rests with the orchestra, while the percussion plays accompanying figures around it.’ He doesn’t actually spell out what his solutions to these problems have been - no doubt he wants to let the music do the talking for him. One solution has been to restrict his orchestration to strings with optional brass. The brass are only involved in the opening and closing sections of the finale; they are included here. The other, even more important, feature is that he disciplines himself by restricting in each movement the types of percussion instruments for which he writes. Thus, instead of throwing in the proverbial kitchen sink, only wooden instruments are used in Movement I, metal instruments in II and instruments with skins in III. Each movement is preceded by a cadenza employing the types of instrument that are to be heard in the movement itself.
The first movement, Wood uses pitched instruments - xylophone and marimba - and unpitched ones. For the latter Corigliano has devised a kind of ‘keyboard’ to enable the player to make unpitched sounds more readily. We’re told that an interval of a fifth is important in this movement but I have to admit that I couldn’t easily pick this up. The wooden instruments sound right across the stereo spectrum from left to right. The soloist is definitely in the musical foreground but to my ears at least the objective of having melodic interest in the solo part doesn’t seem to be met. However, there are many fascinating sounds to stimulate the listener’s ear.
One might have expected that the use of metal instruments in the second movement would produce loud aggressive music. Indeed, the preceding cadenza, which starts with mighty tam-tam crashes, is ‘loud and clangorous’, as the composer puts it. However, once the movement proper has got under way much of the music consists of extended soft lines for the strings underpinning subdued ideas for the soloist. In this movement I did discern clearly a strong melodic element, chiefly provided by the vibraphone. One feature I found especially interesting was the way that notes played on various metallic instruments are allowed to decay slowly while new sounds on chiming instruments resound over the dying notes. Towards the end of the movement the vibraphone takes centre-stage, albeit softly. We hear some ravishing, melodic textures as the instrument is both struck and bowed. My only issue with this movement is to wonder whether at 11:58 - nearly one third of the entire concerto - it’s a bit over-extended.
The cadenza preceding the third movement, Skin, features a pedal bass drum, such as one finds in drum kits, and an ingenious ‘talking drum’ which produces sounds that change pitch - this is described more fully in the booklet notes. The movement itself begins with sharply detached rhythms and all manner of drums are deployed, including hand-played pedal timpani. After a more subdued central section, during which the brass players are not involved, the concerto explodes into a pyrotechnic cadenza followed by a fast and furious conclusion.
The concerto was commissioned for Dame Evelyn Glennie. She plays it with staggering virtuosity and one can tell that even without seeing her in action. The music itself is never less than intriguing. I think that the work could catch on just as James MacMillan’s Veni Emmanuel has, especially with such a champion as Glennie to play it. The percussion instruments have been recorded with stunning realism by the engineers.
Vocalise was commissioned by Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic. Corigliano was one of five composers prompted by Masur to give a message through music to the NYPO’s audience on the eve of the new millennium. Corigliano had a clear idea: ‘it was time for the acoustic world of classical music to come to terms with the worlds of amplification and electronic manipulation’. Whether one shares that view or not - I don’t - the way in which he went about expounding that view in Vocalise is very interesting.
The work is scored for a soprano, whose part is wordless, and what sounds like a very large orchestra. At the start we hear the soloist alone, singing quietly. For quite some time she and the players perform ‘naturally’, without recourse to any amplification. The music is essentially slow and lyrical. My ear was caught particularly by a short, rapturous passage around 5:30 in which the soprano and a solo violin are prominent and there’s a very brief moment, around 10:00, which is positively Straussian. The music grows in both volume and intensity. Eventually (at 10:44) the singer has to resort to a microphone to be heard - though that begs the question how singers have managed to be heard in, say, Strauss or Wagner all these years. Given that under recording conditions musicians are, by definition, using microphones I wondered how this effect would be managed on disc but one can tell the difference. There’s a moment (at 12:29) where a soprano phrase is sung and then repeated in an electronic loop. Later on some phrases played by wind and brass soloists are also looped. From 15:00 onwards, after a thunderous orchestral descent, we return to the mood and sound world of the opening with the singer quietly vocalising. In live performance her sounds echo across the hall through loudspeakers placed around the audience. That’s not easy to replicate on disc - except through surround sound, presumably - but a good attempt has been made here. Eventually the sound of the singer fades to nothing.
This is another intriguing piece and Hila Plitmann - the wife of composer, Eric Whitacre, incidentally - makes a tremendous job of what is clearly a hugely demanding solo part. I’m normally resistant to the use of electronics but they’ve been used skilfully here and with restraint and make a positive impression and contribution.
I didn’t know what to expect when asked to review this disc but I’ve found the music stimulating and interesting. Naxos have done John Corigliano’s music proud already with recordings of several of his major works (see below). Here are two more recordings of pieces of genuine invention and substance, both given excellent performances.
Reviews of Corigliano on Naxos