June 2006 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Michael McLennan
Managing Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster: Len Mullenger

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Symphony No. 2 / Suite from ‘The Red Violin’  
Music composed by John Corigliano
Performed by I Musici de Montreal
Conducted by Yuli Turovsky
Featured solo violin Eleonora Turovksy
  Available on Chandos Digital (CHSA-5035)
Running Times:
‘Symphony No. 2’ (2000) for string orchestra [37:28]
‘Suite from the film ‘The Red Violin’’ (1997) [25:00]
Total Time: [62:28]
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See also:

  • The Red Violin
  • Symphony No 1
  • Symphony No 2
  • You could call John Corigliano the Terrence Malick of film scoring. Every decade or so he makes a contribution to the medium, with scores for Ken Russell’s Altered States, Hugh Hudson’s Revolution, and Francois Girard’s The Red Violin making up a short but enviable portfolio. Unlike Terrence Malick though (who is quite the recluse when not making films), John Corigliano’s film scores are rare interludes in a body of work directed at the concert hall, including award-winning symphonies, concerti, works for chamber orchestra, and an opera. This SACD release from Chandos pairs the composer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Symphony No. 2 for String Orchestra with a suite from the Oscar-winning score to The Red Violin. Conducting I Musici de Montreal is Yuli Turosky, whose daughter Eleonora Turovsky performs solo violin parts on both works.

    Symphony No. 2 was a re-arrangement of Corigliano’s 1996 String Quartet for the Cleveland Quartet, here re-written for a full orchestra of strings. The work is a nice example of how avante-garde technique can achieve great emotional power. ‘Prelude’ opens in a groaning whisper as the strings play with their practice mutes on, a single line emerging in Turosvky’s violin. The contrast of textures, all subtly unsynchronised, lends the piece a mysterious quality before it fades to silence. The titles for the following movements are both true to an extent and misleading in their fidelity to the associations that come with those labels. The remarkably unplayful ‘Scherzo’ erupts with a question-and-answer pattern where maestoso agigato chords for the full ensemble are followed by frantic writing for a solo string quartet. The ideas and tone are remarkably stern for a ‘Scherzo’ (the midsection is a haunting chaconne), but the orchestration itself is playful in moving between the full ensemble and its subdivisions. The opening battle of ensemble and quartet resumes in the closing minutes, with the closing bars of ‘Scherzo’ introducing see-sawing, motif reminiscent of an ambulance siren.

    The ‘Nocturne’ is probably the most enchanting piece, with writing for solo violin and divided sections of the full ensemble intended to evoke the accidental counterpoint of the muezzin morning calls to prayer the composer heard once in Morocco. The interval structure gives a vaguely Middle Eastern feel to some of the writing. The ‘Fugue’ is recognisable as a fugue, though, as the excellent liner notes explain, the counterpointing of the lines departs from the standard notion of a fugue by removing the constant rhythm that normally ties together the voices. It’s a piece that feels like it could collapse into a wall of sound at any moment, but Corigliano keeps it on the fine line between density and clarity while making the experience emotionally riveting.

    The final ‘Postlude’ emerges softly out of ‘Fugue’, and echoes the near-ambient opening movement. A lengthy solo violin line sits above the seesawing motif from the scherzo, the ambulance siren suggestion as haunting a bit of musical onomatopoeia as I can remember hearing. (Especially when one remembers that the composer’s Symphony No. 1 was a response to the AIDS epidemic – this feels like a restoration of harsh realities after a flight of fancy.) Overall, Symphony No. 2 is an incredible classical work, and those who love Corigliano’s voice in film music should try it out. I can’t compare to previous performances (the recording released by Ondine is reviewed at a link above), but I can’t imagine a better recorded and engineered performance than this energetic reading by I Musici de Montreal.

    Technically the ‘filler’ material, the ‘Suite from The Red Violin’ is the third concert arrangement of this material prepared by Corigliano. The original soundtrack album of the score featured a seventeen minute ‘Chaconne for Violin and Orchestra’ that tied together the principal thematic material and virtuosic pieces of the score for a broader ensemble than the string orchestra (with percussion and harp) used in the score. That work was extended later still into a Violin Concerto with two additional movements. (This Concerto being unreleased to my knowledge.) To better complement the ensemble of Symphony No. 2, the suite here is more along the lines of the film score – orchestrated for string orchestra, violin, harp, timpani and percussion.

    The emphasis in the Suite is on tragic main theme (Anna’s Theme), with the virtuoso parts from the film’s London sequence providing Turovsky with opportunities to shine alone. After a hint of Corigliano’s more avante-garde tendencies in the opening minute of the ‘Main Title’, a solemn seven-note chaconne introduces the work. Both Turovsky’s take their time with ‘Anna’s Theme’ (the performance extracts as much emotional mileage from each of the dramatic beats as possible), establishing a pattern of using that romantic theme as relief between the more challenging material. The dissonance of ‘Anna’s Death’ is soothed by a brief interlude for solo cello. ‘Coitus Musicales’ is the first of the virtuoso pieces – the musical imagery of passionate lovemaking served well by Turovsky the younger.

    ‘Journey to China’ is a serene moment for the soloist, and Anna’s Theme returns over the Chaconne theme in the moving highlight ‘Shanghai’, the harp writing gently hinting at the Oriental setting without overselling the point. There’s a faint gypsy flavour to ‘Pope’s Betrayal’ at the outset, but, in reference to the on-screen character’s discovery in flagrante by his jealous lover, the scraping of ‘Coitus Musicales’ returns with thunderous timpani punctuation. (The interpretation is a little laboured here, but it’s a valid interpretation unbound by the need to synchronise with the film exactly.) After a return of the Chaconne theme and Anna’s Theme in ‘Victoria’s Departure’ comes the score’s darkest moment – ‘The Auction’ (actually a theft for those who have seen the film), superbly performed and recorded here. Turovsky is given a final solo piece in the appropriately-titled ‘Gypsy Cadenza’, before the main theme is recapitulated one final time in ‘Anna’s Theme’.

    While the Suite misses out on some of the full score’s most interesting conceits – the diversion into Baroque and more strictly classical composition for violin during the Vienna section – this is still a good taste of the pleasures of one of the best film scores of the last ten years. It’s a strong accompaniment to the deservedly-acclaimed symphony by the composer. Hopefully it won’t be another ten years before Corigliano finds a film score equal to his gifts again, or a symphony for that matter.

    Michael McLennan

    Rating: 5

    Review copy provided by the reviewer.

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