October 16, 2008


John Corigliano: Mr. Tambourine Man—Seven Poems of Bob Dylan; Three Hallucinations (from Altered States). Hila Plitmann, amplified soprano; Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $8.99.

Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition (orchestrations compiled by Leonard Slatkin); Liszt: Piano Concerto No. 1; Rob Mathes: Arrangement of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Peng Peng, piano; Nashville Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Leonard Slatkin. Naxos. $8.99.

     John Corigliano has done something amazing with Bob Dylan’s words: he has created a cycle of seven “art songs” that plumb the depths of Dylan’s poetry to a greater extent than does Dylan himself – although without any of the catchy melodies and folksong-like repetition characterizing Dylan’s music and making it popular and readily accessible. Corigliano says, in his booklet notes, that he had never heard Dylan’s songs when he obtained their words and got permission to create Mr. Tambourine Man. The cycle is the better for the composer’s lack of prior knowledge: it is unlikely that Corigliano could have made the title song (which he uses as a prelude) so portentous, or “Forever Young” (which he casts as a postlude) so ethereal, if he had known Dylan’s own musical settings. The five songs making up the central portion of the cycle – “Clothes Line,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Masters of War,” “All Along the Watchtower” and “Chimes of Freedom” – are all set in highly impressive concert-hall style, with (for example) “Blowin’ in the Wind” gaining a bleakness and “Masters of War” an intense anger well beyond anything in Dylan’s own music. Corigliano wrote the cycle in 2000 for voice and piano and created the orchestral version in 2003 – with Hila Plitmann giving the latter its first performance. Plitmann’s amplified voice is strong and a touch strident, and she fully communicates the words’ meanings as Corigliano has interpreted and expanded them. Mr. Tambourine Man is a considerable achievement on all levels – and the Buffalo Philharmonic under JoAnn Falletta plays it with an entirely appropriate mixture of strength and subtlety.

     Three Hallucinations (1981) is comparatively minor Corigliano, although it has its own surface-level appeal. The work is based on music written for the 1980 film Altered States, and consists of “Sacrifice,” “Hymn” and “Ritual.” The structure is clever – elements of one movement become prominent motifs in a later one – but the music sounds self-consciously modernistic (plenty of brass glissandi) and, in the concluding “Ritual,” seems to be channeling Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring so closely as to be just shy of plagiaristic. The ending is certainly rousing, but then, so is Stravinsky’s.

     It is hard to make Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition into something fresh and unusual, but conductor Leonard Slatkin figured out a way: his performance incorporates orchestrations of the composer’s original piano version by no fewer than 15 people, some of whom used Rimsky-Korsakov’s imperfect edition (which was, for a time, the only one available) and others of whom used more-modern, more-accurate versions. The famous 1922 Ravel orchestration appears only in “Con mortuis in lingua mortua.” The remaining orchestrations are frequently subtle, sometimes not significantly different from Ravel’s familiar one, but often strikingly dissimilar, as in Vladimir Ashkenazy’s “Bydlo,” which opens fortissimo with four horns (Rimsky-Korsakov had the oxcart approaching from a distance, but newer editions revert to Mussorgsky’s desire for high volume from the start). The last two orchestrations are the most overdone: Leopold Stokowski’s The Hut on Fowl’s Legs uses four trumpets, eight horns and an ending quite different from Mussorgsky’s, while film-score composer Douglas Gamley makes The Bogatyr (Heroes’) Gate at Kiev into a huge conclusion that includes chorus and organ as well as the inevitable bells. There is something exhilarating in Slatkin’s compilation, which he conducts with considerable enthusiasm, but it seems fair to suspect that it will not (and is probably not intended to) replace Ravel’s more urbane and thoroughly thought-through orchestration.

     The pairing of the Mussorgsky with Peng Peng’s performance of Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 is a curiosity in itself. The pianist was 14 when this CD was recorded live (in June 2007), and he certainly has plenty of technique, but equally certainly has no sense of the subtleties of the music (and it is subtle, although often played unsubtly). This is a bright and brassy performance, a crowd-pleasing rendition of a crowd-pleasing work, but it is entirely one-dimensional. The Liszt appears first on this CD. Rob Mathes’ arrangement of The Star-Spangled Banner, placed last, simply sounds peculiar after the grandiosity of Gamley’s version of the end of Pictures. Written as a eulogy after the terrorist mass murders of September 11, 2001, Mathes’ work brings all that comes before down to earth in a vaguely (or perhaps not so vaguely) unsettling way.

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