John CORIGLIANO (b.1938)
Symphony No.1 (1989) [40:56] Michael TORKE (b.1961)
Bright Blue Music (1985) [9:06] Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Appalachian Spring - Ballet Suite (1945) [23:56]
National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic/David Alan Miller
rec. The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, Elsie & Marvin Dekelboum Concert Hall, University of Maryland, College Park, USA 13 June 2015 NAXOS 8.559782 [73:58]
The use of a picture of a quilt on the cover of this Naxos CD is very apposite. John Corigliano provides an excellent note to his Symphony No.1 (which fills the bulk of the disc); in this he mentions being moved by seeing The Quilt which was a literal weaving together of several thousand fabric panels each memorialising a person who had died of Aids. Corigiliano used the technique of bringing together separate entities into a greater unity in this work. Furthermore, the entire disc’s programme can be seen as a sampler of both the work of the student National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic and, indeed, of American 20th Century music.
Corigliano’s work was written at the time when a diagnosis of HIV infection was tantamount to a death sentence, with few members of the Artistic community in particular not having lost friends, colleagues or partners to the disease. This work is a deeply felt and intensely personal reaction to such losses and one which carries these emotions forward more than a quarter century since it was written. I have read elsewhere that the work has in some way dated. Clearly, with the passing of time certain musical techniques and gestures might not seem as ‘new’ as they were at the work’s premiere but the emotional power is as impressive and moving as ever. For the scourge of AIDS substitute War, natural disasters, disease, terrorist acts or any event which tears communities apart unexpectedly. To quote from the score: “The first three movements are dedicated to three individuals: a pianist, a music executive, and a cellist. The finale depicts the piano solo, the tarantella melody, and the cello solo from the first three movements against a backdrop of ‘a repeated pattern consisting of waves of brass chords ... [to convey] an image of timelessness’”. Corigliano overlays in a form of musical collage elements of music which he associated with these people. This is most obvious in the opening movement - given the title ‘Apologue: Of Rage and Remembrance’. To quote from the score again, this movement: “alternates between the tension of anger and the bittersweet nostalgia of remembering”. The former is represented by harsh string and brass gestures framed by scything percussive whips while the latter is represented by an etiolated off-stage piano playing Godowsky's transcription of the Albéniz Tango in D. Gradually elements of the tango seep into the orchestral texture in a very effective but oddly unsettling manner.
The friend remembered in the second movement ‘Tarantella’ was ultimately certified insane as a result of AIDS-induced dementia. Corigliano again weaves musical fragments together formed from a piano work of his - Gazebo Dances - that the friend used to play, and a wildly aggressive tarantella figure. Corigliano writes that “[he] tried to picture some of the schizophrenic and hallucinatory images that would have accompanied that madness as well as moments of lucidity....there is a slow but relentless progression towards an accelerated ‘madness’. The ending can only be described as a brutal scream”. Again, I find this music as compelling as it is disturbing. The friend in the third movement - ‘Guilio’s Song’ - is named. Guilio was a cellist, and after his death Corigliano found a tape recorded many years earlier of the two of them improvising together. Corigliano used Guilio’s improvisation as the thematic basis for the movement, with a major part for the solo principal cello, structuring it as a Chaconne where the recurring chordal progression is based on a twelve-tone row. The liner includes an orchestral list so congratulations to principle cellist Victor Minke Huls for playing which is both technically secure and musically intensely expressive.
Another recording of the symphony logically couples it with Corigliano’s reworking of the third movement for mezzo soprano, boy soprano, male chorus, chimes and low strings which he called Of Rage and Remembrance. If I find the movement in the Symphony the more powerful expression it is because it transcends the specifics of time and place and becomes a memorial to all people and all tragedies.
The closing, relatively short, movement of the Symphony, titled ‘Epilogue’, revisits elements (literally musical memories of the preceding passages) against waves of brass all of which very slowly recede into the distance ultimately leaving the solo cello holding the same A with which the work opened, although now in a mood of tranquillity floating out into infinity. Not just because of the clear topicality of its ‘narrative’, this has proved to be one of the most frequently played and warmly received symphonies of the late 20th Century. Running to over forty minutes this is a substantial, densely argued and demanding work for players and listeners. But at the same time, because the emotions it expresses are so raw and apparent (not always the case in contemporary music) it is very understandable that it should have entered the repertoire. The very large orchestra it requires, including piccolo, 3 flutes, 3 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets in Bb, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 6 horns in F, 5 trumpets in C, 4 trombones (2 tenor, 2 bass), 2 tubas, timpani, percussion (glockenspiel, crotales, vibraphone, xylophone, marimba, chimes (2 sets), snare drum, 3 tom-toms, 3 roto-toms, field drum, tenor drum, 2 bass drums, suspended cymbal, tamtam, finger cymbals, 3 temple blocks, tambourine, anvil, metal plate with hammer, brake drum, triangle, flexatone, police whistle, whip, ratchet), harp, piano, and strings, does not seem to have inhibited performances. This disc is its fourth commercial recording the others being the premiere from Barenboim and the Chicago SO on Erato, Slatkin and the Washington NSO (coupled with the choral version of the 3rd movement mentioned above) on RCA and Tatsuya Shimono with the Yomiuri Nippon SO on Avex.
Time to mention the performers, before moving onto the rest of the music. The National Orchestral Institute is a month-long music course held at the University of Maryland aimed at students on the verge of a professional music career. The current disc was recorded towards the end of the 2015 course although it is not clear if this was a live concert or studio session recording. The calibre of the playing - especially in the Corigliano - is excellent. One can quibble here and there and say that another orchestra's strings are richer or the brass more blended but these are tiny observations and subjective ones to boot. David Alan Miller is an impressive guide to this work and to the entire disc. I have enjoyed many of his discs on the Albany label and elsewhere, discovering little-known American scores and this is the equal of them. Phil Rowlands’ production is excellent, dealing especially well with the density and multi-layered strands of the symphony. As mentioned, my only comparison in this work is the Slatkin/RCA version which is also technically very fine as well as musically compelling.
My only significant concern is the structure of the disc's programme. If there has to be a coupling with the Corigliano (Barenboim's disc of the premiere performance has none) surely best to end the disc with the final ascent to eternity. Here, after a few seconds we come crashing back down to earth with Michael Torke's perky Bright Blue Music. In its own right a thoroughly enjoyable piece of easy to assimilate post-modernism. This piece is very much in the style of energetic works by John Adams or Michael Daugherty but somehow lacking the memorability of either of those composers’ finest works. I do have a sneaking sense that such were the demands of the Corigliano, in every respect, that the remainder of the programme was not performed with quite the same intensity or precision. We are talking miniscule differences here but there is a fractional slackness in the Torke which I simply did not hear in the main work. Perhaps it is also due to the fact that the Torke requires a kind of mechanistic chromium-plated precision for maximum effect. Likewise, the closing suite from Copland’s Appalachian Spring - an all-time American 'pops' favourite if ever there was one. Again a thoroughly commendable and indeed often impressive performance but so many other versions jostle for attention in the catalogue that I could not recommend this above all comers. That being said - the playing of the principle wind generally and the clarinet and oboe in particular has exactly that right simplicity of expression that makes this such a touching score. I do miss the splendour of the finest brass sections in the climax of the ‘Gift to be Simple’ variations. The strings are nimble and neat without really challenging the weight of tone of the finest ensembles. Miller's interpretation is satisfying and sane but in the ferociously competitive market-place this is not an interpretation to supplant established recordings. A favourite version is Robert Spano on Telarc in Atlanta in another mixed-Americana album which is better balanced piece-to-piece. Michael Tilson-Thomas in San Francisco and Dorati in Detroit impress too.
All that said, this is a pretty remarkable achievement for a group of young players who had been together for barely a month and by that measure alone well-worth hearing and applauding. Good and interesting liner notes from the two living composers and fine engineering by Antonio D'Urzo and production by Phil Rowlands. In the self-serving world of the music collector I do struggle to see the logic of this programme - effective though each individual work may be. The Corigliano deserves to be heard and is very well served here - collectors will need to decide for themselves for the remainder of the programme.