CORIGLIANO: Tournaments Overture.* Elegy.* Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. Gazebo Dances.
James Tocco, piano; The Louisville Orchestra/Sidney Harth,* Lawrence Leighton Smith, cond.
First Edition FECD-0002 {F} TT: 67:44

I must admit whatever charm John Corigliano's music may have has mostly failed to bind me. I keep reading comparisons of his work to Barber's, and I shake my head in mystification. It makes me wonder what people are listening to in Barber. Barber's music, after all, has a personality, and Barber's strong composing suit lay in his talent for finding genius, memorable themes, no matter how "modern" he got. As far as I know, Corigliano has nothing in his catalogue that qualifies as super-wonderful and no theme that sticks. No longer a Young Man of Promise, shouldn't he have come up with something by now? For me, most of the time he merely spins notes, and soporific ones at that. On the other hand, he's won a Pulitzer, so thank heaven he doesn't have to depend on me for a living.

Nevertheless, the works here, from thirty and forty years ago, show why people took notice of him in the first place. The piano concerto, the Elegy, and the Tournaments Overture have appeared on recording before (as part of Slatkin's American music series on RCA), as have the Gazebo Dances in their original two-piano form. All the music on the disc is at least well-made, and some of it is even lively. It reminds me somewhat of the old Kaufman and Hart play Merrily We Roll Along, where action proceeds mainly in reverse—a cynical S.O.B. becomes more and more idealistic and his life brighter and brighter as he grows younger. I can't shake the feeling that Corigliano dried up fairly quickly.

We, however, begin at the beginning. Tournaments (1965) skips like lambs in springtime. Written in the idiom of classic American Modernism, it represents, first of all, a daring, a dissatisfaction with the prevailing post-Webernian serialism of the time. It's definitely young man's music, not simply because of its high spirits, but because it searches for an individual voice by trying on others, including Bernstein's and Amram's. The Elegy, from the same year, shows much the same thing. This time the voices are Barber's, Bernstein's, and Ravel's. The opening theme, for example, varies slightly the opening to Ravel's Introduction and Allegro. I don't find anything wrong with this because both pieces convince you all by themselves. But the influences go pretty much unassimilated. Eventually, Corigliano has to show up with something as good and really his own.

The Piano Concerto (1968) ranks as the most ambitious score on the program (as well as perhaps my favorite Corigliano work), not only in its length, but for Corigliano searching out himself, exploring and testing his expressive range. It owes a lot to the Barber concerto of 1962, both in idiom and in rhetorical structure, although the large formal features differ. Little bits of the Bernstein symphonies also show up from time to time. Corigliano points out sections of freely atonal and dodecaphonic music, but if he had said nothing, I doubt anyone would have known—an eminently tonal work over all. The first movement plays with two short, extremely fertile ideas—one aggressive, the other lyrical. In the course of the movement, they switch characters. Corigliano creates a wonderful argument and transformation, full of interest and, even more important, direct communication with the listener. One can easily isolate the source of many of the moments in other composers, but for once it doesn't matter. The second movement, a short scherzo, is light compared only with the first movement. It hardly counts as fun and games— plenty of malice runs through it. The concerto falls down, as far as I'm concerned, from the slow movement on. While Corigliano has conceived an intriguing rhetorical structure for the "Andante Appassionata" (the music pares down to a single line which runs directly into the last movement), the musical material itself doesn't really stick. I don't expect something as wonderful as the slow movements to the Barber and the Ravel concerti, but I don't want the music to dissolve without a trace, either. The rondo finale sums up the thematic content so far. However, the main rondo theme sounds like Barber's rejected sketches to the finale of his piano concerto, before he got the brilliant idea of putting the meter into 5/8. Corigliano is just too damn close. There's a nice touch where Corigliano brings back the opening motto at the very end for a shot of energy, but mostly one has heard it all before, and not just from Corigliano.

The Gazebo Dances (1974) is attractive without special distinction, except for the last movement, a manically dippy tarantella. For those who know the two-piano version, the orchestration substantially changes the character of the piece. The bright, percussive textures of the pianos make clear the links to Stravinsky, particularly to things like the 3 Easy Pieces and the 5 Easy Pieces. On the other hand, the orchestral colors bring the work much closer to Barber's Souvenirs, and in the slow movement at least, the composer indulges a characteristically Barberian tone of nostalgic yearning. Oddly enough, this movement is the only one on the program I can find where composer Corigliano has finally shown up, speaking for once not through others, but for himself, and he has something to say.

If you have the Slatkin program, I see very little reason, other than indulgence, to duplicate with this CD. On the other hand, the duplicates, though less finely played by Smith's Louisville than by Slatkin's St. Louis, move with a lot more vim in Kentucky, and I prefer Tocco to Douglas in the concerto. Douglas has a more powerful tone, but Tocco gets the neurotic, demonic energy of the piece. If I started from scratch, I would definitely choose this over the Slatkin. The sound is brighter than on the RCA recording, but I can live with it.

This marks the second release (as far as I can tell from the recording number) of the Santa Fe Music Group's First Edition. Apparently, they have acquired for re-release all the recordings of the classic Louisville Orchestra commissioning series—a project that taught me a lot and introduced me to music I never would have heard otherwise. Lovers of American and modern music, take notice.

S.G.S. (October 2003)