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American Classics - Corigliano: A Dylan Thomas Trilogy / Slatkin


Release Date: 10/28/2008 
Label:  Naxos   Catalog #: 8559394   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  John Corigliano
Performer:  Thomas Allen
Conductor:  Leonard Slatkin
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Nashville Symphony OrchestraNashville Symphony Chorus
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 7 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

CORIGLIANO A Dylan Thomas Trilogy Leonard Slatkin, cond; Thomas Allen (bar); Ty Jackson (boy sop); John Tessier (ten); Nashville SO & Ch NAXOS 8.559394 (66:48 Text and Translation)

One of the most widely praised and highly regarded American composers of his generation, John Corigliano, now in his early seventies, is currently enjoying significant attention from Naxos’s “American Classics” series. The three recent releases discussed here represent a broad survey of his work, drawn from all Read more periods of his composing career. Corigliano’s early pieces reveal a strong affinity with the sensitive, nostalgic music of Samuel Barber. However, as he was approaching the age of 40, he transformed his creative identity, embracing the general approach known for a time as the “New Romanticism”—a style associated during the 1970s with the music of Jacob Druckman and others who were struggling to free themselves from the aesthetic straitjacket of serialism, but without regressing to traditional tonality. The proponents of this style attempted to impress listeners in more spontaneously visceral or emotional ways than serial music typically did, by creating richly orchestrated aural canvases, highlighted by strongly characterized gestures and striking juxtapositions, at times incorporating quotations of earlier music within the context of such soundscapes. However, Corigliano came to this approach from the opposite direction, producing compositions whose vivid flamboyance and unrestrained eclecticism greatly appealed to listeners who were favorably inclined toward the innovative, but nevertheless sought some measure of immediate sensual gratification. By the 1980s, he had settled into a broadly based and highly flexible approach of his own that rejected nothing on principle, while tailoring each composition according to its own specific requirements. Perhaps what is most characteristic of the mature Corigliano is his attraction to novel, provocative conceits that generate interest in and of themselves; this he shares in common with, for example, Dominick Argento. In fact, the program notes to one of these releases states, “For the past three decades I have started the compositional process by building a shape, or architecture, before coming up with any musical material.” Long series of numbered sonatas or string quartets are antithetical to his nature. The results of his approach have proven to be spectacularly successful: Corigliano has won the Pulitzer Prize and the esteemed Grawemeyer Award—perhaps the two most prestigious awards available to the serious composer; his opera The Ghosts of Versailles was commissioned and produced by the Metropolitan Opera, and subsequently elsewhere as well; of two film scores, the first ( Altered States ) was nominated for an Academy Award, while the second ( The Red Violin ) actually won the award. And he has drawn praise—even if begrudgingly at times—from listeners and commentators representing all points on the compositional spectrum.

The most important of the works discussed here may indeed prove to be Corigliano’s magnum opus: A Dylan Thomas Trilogy . This composition, completed in 1999, was nearly four decades—and several stages—in the making. If I have had a complaint about Corigliano’s work over the years, it is that he seems to focus more on elements that will make an impact on his audience than on searching for and expressing his own inner life (yes, how hopelessly sentimental and old-fashioned of me). But this work, occupying the composer as long as it did, comes close to being a personal autobiography in music. Corigliano had long been strongly drawn to Thomas’s poetry, and found much in the Welsh poet’s expression that he could relate to his own life; his selection of poems written at different times in the poet’s life, and the settings he composed at different times in his life created a natural parallel between the two. The trilogy began in 1961 with a setting for mezzo-soprano, chorus, and orchestra of Thomas’s Fern Hill , which attained considerable success as an independent work. This was followed in 1970 by Poem in October , also an independent work, for tenor and chamber ensemble. Almost as long as those two sections combined, Poem on his Birthday followed in 1976, this time for baritone soloist, with chorus and full symphony orchestra. This completed the trilogy, as presented at that time as a full evening in recognition of the American bicentennial. But Corigliano was not satisfied with the result. The first two sections owed much to Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 and, to a lesser extent, Summer Music , although Poem in October ventured into a pan-diatonicism somewhat more prickly than Barber might have employed. Both evoked a peaceful, playful past, recalled wistfully. The third section reflected the poet’s state of emotional turbulence at the time of his 35th birthday (he was to live only four years more), with fiercely extravagant imagery to which Corigliano responded with the full range of his recently liberated musical imagination. But he was not convinced that the juxtaposition of incompatible musical styles really worked. Not until the late 1990s did he come upon the idea of creating a framework that would supply the necessary coherence. Turning to Author’s Prologue , one of Thomas’s final works, he found what he was looking for—a selection that captured the poet’s untamed earthiness, while providing the retrospective posture of an older, more seasoned protagonist. Drawing upon musical material used in Poem on his Birthday , Corigliano set this passage for baritone soloist against a backdrop of chorus and orchestra, using a largely atonal, and at times spoken, declamation. The first portion of this Prologue serves as an introduction to the entire work, while the second half is inserted between Fern Hill and Poem in October . This reshaping treated the two earlier pieces as “flashbacks,” reflections on the innocent past from the perspective of the turbulent present, the transitions occurring naturally and convincingly. With a few other adjustments, such as changing the mezzo-soprano to a boy soprano in Fern Hill , and expanding the scoring of Poem in October to match the rest of the work (though retaining the harpsichord, which creates a wonderful effect), he finally achieved the coherence and integration he had sought. The result, which spans the majority of his compositional career, is not only a convincing structure, but it is also a very moving work—more so than in any of its previous incarnations. It is not an “easy” work by any means—not something one can expect to enjoy in the background: it requires a good deal of concentration, as well as close attention to the texts, in order to derive its full meaning. But it may prove to be Corigliano’s greatest, most deeply personal, and most emotionally sincere work. The performance here is extremely fine: the vocal soloists are excellent, and Leonard Slatkin directs a fully sympathetic and convincing performance. My only complaint is that the choral rendering of the text is barely intelligible, even for one who is following it in print.

FANFARE: Walter Simmons Read less

Works on This Recording

1. A Dylan Thomas Trilogy by John Corigliano
Performer:  Thomas Allen (Baritone)
Conductor:  Leonard Slatkin
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Nashville Symphony Orchestra,  Nashville Symphony Chorus
Period: 20th Century 
Written: USA 
Length: 66 Minutes 3 Secs. 
Notes: Composition written: USA (1960).
Composition revised: USA (1999). 

Sound Samples

A Dylan Thomas Trilogy: Author's Prologue, Part I
A Dylan Thomas Trilogy: Part I: Fern Hill
A Dylan Thomas Trilogy: Author's Prologue, Part II
A Dylan Thomas Trilogy: Part II: Poem in October
A Dylan Thomas Trilogy: Part III: Poem on His Birthday

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