Although unquestionably symphonic in its overall conception,
John Corigliano could equally have named his First Symphony,
‘Requiem Without Voices’, for in essence the work amounts to a large
scale, four-movement orchestral requiem for the numerous friends and
musical colleagues the composer has lost as a result of AIDS.
That Corigliano wears his heart on his sleeve is apparent
from the very outset, for he approaches what for many would be a truly
daunting task with a head-on fearlessness. He is equally open and lucid
in his own booklet notes on the work, which are both detailed and informative
and I would strongly recommend reading them thoroughly before listening
to the symphony for the first time. I found the insight they gave invaluable.
In many ways it is the first movement, Apologue:
of rage and remembrance, which encapsulates the emotional pendulum
of both despair and nostalgia that is at the very core of the work.
sample opening This is a movement
of conflict, plunging into a psychological abyss, yet then sweeping
away on a wave of flickering memories. The opening note of A in the
violins and violas is crucially central to the work and recurs at various
points throughout the symphony although the most extraordinary feature
of the movement is Corigliano’s use of Leopold Godowsky’s transcription
of Isaac Albéniz’s Tango, a favourite piece of the late
concert pianist friend who was in Corigliano’s mind whilst composing.
The theme is used both literally as well as influencing the melodic
material of the slow central section of the movement, yet its presence
feels entirely natural, the result truly haunting. sample
In point of fact, the first three movements all relate
to specific lost friends, the second, Tarantella, being in memory
of a music industry executive who was also an enthusiastic amateur pianist.
The composer tells of writing a set of dances entitled Gazebo Dances
for piano, four hands, dedicating the final movement, Tarantella,
to his friend. The dictionary definition of a ‘tarantella’ is a dance
that could cure a form of insanity attributed to the bite of the tarantula,
a cutting irony as the composer’s friend was to become insane as a result
of AIDS dementia. sample Corigliano’s
music charts a gradual descent into mental turmoil, centred on the theme
of his Tarantella, the music represents both the horrors of the
hallucinatory images his friend suffered as well as the relief of the
periods of lucidity in between. The closing manic, screaming bars are
devastatingly disturbing sample
and left me longing for the relative tranquillity of the third movement,
Chaconne: Giulio’s Song.
The friendship here revolves around a cellist with
whom the composer would often improvise. Listening to a tape of one
of these improvisation sessions Corigliano discovered a melodic fragment
that quite literally became the basis for "Giulio’s Song",
hence the movement makes extended use of solo cello as well as the cello
and double bass sections generally, who open the movement by introducing
the chaconne theme. The improvisation melody forms one of several "musical
remembrances" that the composer works into the music, very much
the emotional heart of the symphony, sample
and perhaps what can be viewed as the beautiful calm at the centre of
the storm before the return of one of the principal themes from the
first movement, this time transfigured into a funeral march.
If I have any reservations about the symphony then
it is the final Epilogue that is at the centre of them, a brief
apotheosis of the material from the previous movements including further
references to the Godowsky/Albéniz and the Tarantella
before the music fades away on the A with which the symphony commenced.
Initially I could not help but feel a curious lack of substance here
after the sheer intensity of the earlier movements although I am sure
that this was exactly the composer’s intention. Further listening will
no doubt reveal more. sample
My first reaction upon looking at the cover of this
CD was dismay that Warner had chosen to release a disc with just one
forty minute work when another major piece could easily have been included.
Having listened to the symphony however my opinion has changed, for
this music should stand alone exactly as it was intended, a disturbing
and very real memorial. Few recent symphonies (the work was first heard
thirteen years ago) will strike quite as directly at your heart as this
does, for Corigliano has created a work that is intensely personal and
deeply felt, but above all abundantly honest. The result, as emotionally
shattering as it is, simply cries out to be heard and Barenboim and
the Chicago Symphony Orchestra give as powerfully convincing a reading
as we are ever likely to hear. Highly recommended listening.