February 05, 2009


John Corigliano: Circus Maximus—Symphony No. 3 for Large Wind Ensemble; Gazebo Dances for Band. University of Texas Wind Ensemble conducted by Jerry Junkin. Naxos. $8.99.

Vittorio Giannini: Piano Concerto; Symphony No. 4. Gabriela Imreh, piano; Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Spalding. Naxos. $8.99.

     John Corigliano is something of a superstar among modern American composers. Corigliano, who turns 71 on February 16, has found a way to produce music that is uncompromisingly contemporary but still appealing to a wide enough audience so that it gets played repeatedly, in a variety of venues. This is no small accomplishment: even when a modern classical work gets programmed by an adventurous orchestra, it frequently gets only that one performance, or perhaps two, before being returned to the composer’s shelf. The appeal of Corigliano’s music is quite clear in the new recording of his Symphony No. 3, written in 2004 (following by three years his previous symphony, which was for strings alone and which won the Pulitzer Prize for Music). Circus Maximus is Corigliano’s first work written specifically for concert band, and it is highly impressive on multiple levels. It is spatially conceived – the band surrounds the audience – and includes eight sections played without pause. Corigliano fully exploits the unique sounds of which a concert band is capable: the work starts with trumpet and percussion fanfares, includes a saxophone quartet (in the concert hall, placed in the second-tier boxes), and comes across as a mixture of solemnity, social commentary (comparing contemporary American society with that of ancient Rome) and grand noise. In the third section, “Channel Surfing,” music constantly interrupts other music; in the fourth and fifth, both called “Night Music,” we first hear rural nighttime sounds and then hear the hectic noises of an urban area after dark; in the sixth movement, whose title is the same as that of the whole work, a band marches down the aisles while other performers play on stage and around the concert hall. The final two sections are prayerful and then, at the end, noisy (the work’s final sound is a gunshot). Circus Maximus begs to be recorded as an SACD, but the wonderful performance by the University of Texas Wind Ensemble under Jerry Junkin (who commissioned the work and to whom it is dedicated) sounds just grand in CD form. Jazz, hunting calls, circus music, many fanfares – all the elements come together and play against each other as Junkin and his ensemble dissect the work elegantly and put it back together beautifully. It’s quite a sonic experience. And the CD is filled out by Corigliano’s band arrangement of Gazebo Dances, originally a suite for piano four hands (and a work also arranged by the composer for orchestra). This is much simpler and more vivacious music than Circus Maximus, and complements the longer work nicely. The first movement has a Rossinian flavor; the second is a somewhat awkward waltz; the third, marked Adagio, is as expressive as the tempo indication implies; and the finale, a tarantella, is bright and bouncy. This is a top-notch CD that clearly shows why Corigliano is one modern American composer who has gained widespread popularity.

     The case of Vittorio Giannini (1903-1966) is quite different. His music is more avowedly Romantic than Corigliano’s and has considerable emotional sweep and intensity. But little of it has caught on – although Giannini himself wrote a symphony for band (his third). Both Giannini’s Piano Concerto (1935) and his Symphony No. 4 (1960) have gone unperformed for decades. It is actually fairly easy to understand why – without in any way denying the many attractions of the works. The problem is that there is no distinctive Giannini “sound.” The concerto owes much to Rachmaninoff, while Symphony No. 4 sounds like a variety of other composers without ever establishing a unique thematic or sonic identity. The Bournemouth Symphony, one of the most versatile orchestras around, handles both works with fine attentiveness, its sections excellently balanced in the symphony and its accompaniment well proportioned in the concerto. Gabriela Imreh plays very well indeed, and Daniel Spalding is a fine conductor who seems thoroughly to understand Giannini’s music. The faster movements of the works – notably the concerto’s concluding Burlesca – are more interesting than the slower ones, whose emotions seem more borrowed than heartfelt. The Giannini CD gets a (+++) rating: this is music that is interesting but not compelling.

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