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CD Review

John Corigliano

  • Symphony #1
  • "Of Rage and Remembrance" *
* Michelle DeYoung, mezzosoprano
National Philharmonic Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin
RCA 09026-68450
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As far as I can tell, this disc marks the recording debut of Maestro Slatkin with his new orchestra. The way I read the insert notes, the symphony was recorded in April and July of this year. My initial impression, based on listening to this, is that the marriage between the two should be excellent. I was interested in reviewing this disc as I already had the previous recording with Barenboim and the Chicago SO.

I want to point out that at this time (2 November 1995 6:11 PM) I have not yet read the insert notes that come with this disc. I recall, vaguely, those in the Erato CD. I know the symphony has something to do with AIDS (I recall, specifically the second movement has something to do with a crazy dance). But I want to write a first draft without the assistance of any descriptive commentary that might influence my hearing. I want to try to address a second question: can this music stand on its own?

At this point I have listened to the Slatkin four times. I have made, in the first two listenings, comparisons with Barenboim at selected points in the movements. The initial impression still remains: as a comparison, Slatkin has a much deeper grasp of this music than Barenboim. It is not just that Slatkin finds more music in the notes, a result of handling the balance better, bringing the violins out more, it is also how Slatkin has them play the notes (music). Time and again I am hearing more poignancy in the playing, like at the very outset when the gong chimes.

I am not sure what all this means, but I would like to share with you the scribblings I have made while listening. I am trying, to some extent, to convey what feelings I am having and, to the extent that I can, why. Several different composers came to mind as I listened, but not in a derivative way.

Panufnik (Sinfonia Sacre) comes to mind several times in the first movement. I sense occasional moments where things seem to lapse into the maudlin, but Slatkin pulls the reins tight. The tred of the beating percussion around 12:00 brings to mind the beating of the wings of the Angel of Death in Suk's Asrael.

The second movement is called Tarantella and it opens with a bang. There is dissonance and lovely moments interspersed. At one moment I can hear soothing, playful music then torn by more dissonance.

In the third movement the adagio of Shostakovich's 5th Symphony comes to mind. You sense it before you hear the celli steal in around 3 minutes into the 13:54 of the movement. (By the way, timings between Slatkin and Barenboim are not significantly different.) Then Elgar's Cello Concerto came to my mind at moments. A dialogue between gongs and bells is in the background like a lament. The oboe solo in this movement is another example of where how the notes are played changes the music. Here it is not maudlin, as it is in Barenboim's recording. The movement goes back to the first movement's cry and the drone of death's wings from the first movement. Then it all fades back on itself.

The fourth movement, like the third, steals in like a fog. A melody emerges briefly at a minute into the four plus in the movement, this time calling to mind a child riding his tricycle around on a sidewalk. It is like a childish variation on one of the melodies in the second movement. "It is not unlike, but not like the closing of Berg's Wozzek." I wrote. Don't ask me. The whole thing fades like resignation. This is not the last movement of Mahler's 9th, but the comparison was entertained for a moment or two.

I do not mean to sound too harsh in my comparative study of Barenboim and Slatkin's interpretations of this piece. It may well be that you will hear things differently. I am merely reporting my reactions to comparative listenings and trying to suggest the reasons why I am reacting this way. I hope that the explanations will offer you some insights to help you decide if you want to add this recording to your collection if you already have the Barenboim. If you don't have the Barenboim, I'd suggest that you will find this an interesting recording.

Will I listen to this on a regular basis in the evening? Probably not. On the other hand, I know I will reach for this RCA recording when I want to listen to this piece. Is this great music? I am not ready to pass judgment on that as yet. I can say that I find it more interesting than a recent release of another "contemporary" symphony: Silvestrov's 5th (on Sony).

Oh, yeah. The additional piece is a vocal/oratorio type piece that is a variation (of sorts) on the third movement of the symphony. At least that's what the outer-insert notes assert. I find this odd since it is the first movement that is so titled and not the third. Anyway….I don't like it.

Okay, now the rest of my comments are in light of the fact that now I am listening with the insert notes at hand. Let me say that these notes are not worthless, but not really interesting nor helpful. One insight, however, into my dislike of the vocal piece can be found in the writer's comment, "So, in Of Rage And Rememberance, AIDS is not subtext, but text: content." That's the problem. I am not homophobic or anything like it, but when you reduce how you are saying something to what you are saying, then there is a problem.

Copyright © 1995, Robert Stumpf II