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
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.
Review copy provided by the reviewer.