Saturday 3 November 2012

John Corigliano

In the world of classical music, you typically need to die before your music gets taken too seriously.  Kind of a bummer from a reputation-building perspective.  I guess once you're dead, your oevre is sort of set in stone, and you can't go about upsetting the pronouncements of the 'experts' by releasing a confounding new work.

Having said that, one very much living composer, whose work does gain a grudging degree of respect, is the American composer John Corigliano.  I am a huge fan of his Symphony No 1, written in the late eighties in response to the then-emerging AIDS crisis which was striking down many of his musician friends.  At the time, Corigliano was composer-in-residence at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and such was the reception afforded it that the CSO recorded the work under the baton of Daniel Barenboim.  It has also been recorded by the National Symphony Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin, coupled with the slightly more popular work "Of Rage and Remembrance", but the CSO version is the one to own.

Symphony No 1 swings seamlessly between passages of rage, serenity, helplessness, and nostalgia as it weaves a musical AIDS quilt in remembrance of three particular musician friends around whom the work is structured.  One particularly effective device is an off-stage piano playing a transcription of Albeniz' Tango in D which in the CSO recording emerges ghost-like behind a curtain of shimmering strings.  Unusually, for a major work of the last century, Corigliano manages to express both modernity and originality without being derivative of the Rite Of Spring which towers so massively over the compositional landscape of the 20th Century.  The composition has received numerous awards and accolades.  I am hoping that I will one day be able to catch a live performance, which is not an unreasonable ambition as the piece does get performed quite widely.

In the meantime, the CSO/Barenboim recording on Erato is finely done.  Barenboim conducts with passion and precision - the latter is always his calling card - and the off-stage piano is gorgeously captured.  It was recognized at the 1991 Grammys with the award for Best Classical Recording. What a pity there is no hi-res version available for download (as far as I know).

Try and find this recording, it is a piece which I am sure will eventually find its way onto the standard repertoire - I hope you enjoy it.