Corigliano: Winging It (CD review)

Ursula Oppens, piano, with Jerome Lowenthal in two-piano works. Cedille CDR 90000123.

Although folks have been recording his music as much as ever, I hadn't personally heard anything from John Corigliano (b. 1938) for a while; so it was nice to hear this new album of piano music from Cedille, played with care by the distinguished American pianist, Ursula Oppens. Corigliano, as you probably know, is an American composer, teacher, and Pulitzer Prizewinner, a music professor at Lehman College, City University of New York, who numbers among his more-famous pupils Avner Dorman, Scott Glasgow, Elliot Goldenthal, Edward Knight, John Mackey, Nico Muhly, David S. Sampson, and Eric Whitacre. While he has written most of his compositions for orchestra, the present disc contains several of his popular piano works and a world-premiere recording of the title piece.

The program begins with the first-ever recording of Winging It (2007-08). Playing on a Steinway, Ms. Oppens effortlessly captures the remarkable dynamic range of the music from loudest to softest passages. Corigliano based the three movements on improvisations he made, and he titled them with the dates he first played them. He explains in a booklet note the difficulty he had transcribing the improvs, which seems a contradiction when you think about it. I mean, if it's written out, is it any longer an improvisation? But I quibble. The piece follows a traditional fast-slow-fast arrangement, with the slow movement most affecting and the others a bit clamorous.

Next up is Chiaroscuro for Two Pianos Tuned a Quarter Tone Apart (1997), also in three movements, these titled "Light," "Shadows," and "Strobe," which Ms. Oppens performs with Jerome Lowenthal. Here, Corigliano says he was "looking for the expressive power between two notes, as a blues singer does." The effect is often startling and always intriguing as the music explores the allocation of light and shade in the music.

Following Chiaroscuro comes Fantasia on an Ostinato (1985), a single, brief movement that develops, as the title suggests, a recurring melodic fragment. The Van Cliburn International Piano Competition commissioned it as a piece to be played by their twelve semifinalists, and Corigliano intended it to exercise each pianist's imagination while working with something entirely new to them. It is quite the most-charming piece of music on the disc, and I wonder how Ms. Oppens would have scored in the competition. I would have given her an A.

After that is Kaleidoscope for Two Pianos (1959), again with Mr. Lowenthal accompanying Ms. Oppens. Corigliano calls it a "colorful mosaic of changing symmetrical patterns." He wrote it while he was an undergraduate at Columbia University, and it is full of pleasantly youthful energy, which Ms. Oppens seems happy to exploit.

The album closes with Etude Fantasy (1976), five etudes, piano studies, beginning with a rather forward statement from the left hand only. Things settle down thereafter, although the work contains just about everything you can think of before it comes to a vociferous climax, then falling off into silence in a graceful, melodious ending.

Recorded in December, 2010, at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, the sound is most realistic. The miking seems perfectly judged to produce a piano tone that actually appears to be coming from a distance of the listener to the speakers, in my case about eight-to-ten feet. Clarity is outstanding without sacrificing nuance, warmth, or resonance. Impact is strong, and the piano size is lifelike rather than stretching across the room.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa