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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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa