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Glyn Pursglove
MusicWeb International, August 2008

The works of Dante offer what are probably inexhaustible possibilities for composers. Amongst those who have availed themselves of some of those possibilities the names which spring most obviously to name are perhaps Liszt and Tchaikovsky. But Dante has provided composers with texts and ideas from the Italian madrigalists of the sixteenth century onwards—some idea of the sheer quantity of such music can be gleaned from two relatively recent books, The Dante Encyclopedia edited by Richard Lansing (Garland, 2000) and Maria Ann Roglieri’s Dante and Music: Musical Adaptations of Dante from the Sixteenth Century to the Present (Ashgate, 2001). Charles Wuorinen made his own characteristic contribution to the tradition of Dantean musical transformations when commissioned by Peter Martins and the New York City Ballet to write music for three pieces—one corresponding to each of the Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso—based on Dante’s Commedia. The music was written in the mid-1990s. What is here recorded is a chamber version, made by Wuorinen himself, of the original orchestral score.

For a serialist such as Wuorinen a poet such as Dante whose work is shot through with numerological structure and symbolism, dense with patterns of repetition and inversion, has a natural attraction—even if Wuorinen scarcely shares his world view. Such matters as Dante’s structures of three and its multiples, his permutational subdivisions of ten and a hundred, his eleven syllables a line, the special significance of the number seven—and much else—are well calculated (no pun intended) to appeal to a musical mind such as Wuorinen’s, and such numerical structures are reflected in his Dante music.

The Mission of Virgil, which relates to the Inferno, is made up of seven movements, with a prelude; The Great Procession, which relates to the Purgatorio, is made up of seven movements, interleaved with a refrain.

This recording of The Mission of Virgil was previously issued on Koch; the other two sections are issued here for the first time. In The Mission of Virgil Wuorinen’s musical response to Dante’s infernal vision seems to be focused more on its grim mockery, its sense of the absurdity—even if it is entirely logical—of some of the consequences of human sinfulness, rather than on the fierceness of Dante’s images of pain. The sense of onward movement, of Virgil and Dante’s journeying through Hell, is vividly evoked as, to a degree, are the landscapes through which they pass, as lengthy horizontal lines make their way through complex vertical clusters, thinning and thickening by turns. Geryon (especially), Nimrod and Antaeus provoke some vividly imagined writing and the treatment of Satan seems, musically speaking, to bring together in epitome the images of these other monsters and to add a kind of black mockery. There is a sense both of relief—at leaving hell behind—and of nervous expectation in the last part of The Mission of Virgil, ‘Journey though the Center’, and the result is an intriguing piano miniature. Adroit as this two-piano version of The Mission of Virgil is, I did find myself wondering, more than once, what the original orchestral versions sounds like and, at times, longing for a littler more tonal variety than the two pianos alone can provide.

This chamber version of The Great Procession is scored for a sextet, playing flute/piccolo, violin, clarinet/bass clarinet, cello, percussion and piano. Listened to straight after The Mission of Virgil one certainly welcomes the additional instrumental colours, which are put to vivid use. As so often Wuorinen’s structure is essentially symmetrical; it might be represented (in simplified form) thus (where ‘r’ represents the repeated refrain, and ‘x’ one of the seven titled sections): x1-r-x2-x3-r-x4-r-x5-x6-r-x7. There are other, overlaid parallelisms too, so that, for example, x1 (‘The Seven Lights’) and x5 (‘The Seven Virtues’) have much in common, musically speaking, just as x2 (‘The Elders’) is closely echoed by x6 (‘The Departure’). Whereas The Mission of Virgil referred to episodes and ‘characters’ from many parts of the Inferno, The Great Procession, Wuorinen’s Purgatorio music draws, predominantly, on a single Canto, No. XXIX of the second part of Dante’s epic, in which he encounters the sights and sounds of an extraordinary procession which allegorically represents the Revelation of Divine Truth. It is a strangely beautiful and puzzling episode in the poem and I am not sure that Wuorinen finds musical means to do full justice to it. It is a brave attempt though—an attempt at what may well be impossible—with some striking passages and, as more than once elsewhere, one has to remind oneself that this is ballet music. Hearing it on CD, separated from the visual and dynamic language of realised dance, one is, after all, responding only to part of the intended work of art. Purely as aural experience, the astringent partial repetitions of ‘The Chariot’ are attractive and satisfying, as is the beautiful solemnity of ‘The Griffin’—whose combination of eagle and man is used by Dante to embody the meeting of human and divine in Christ. ‘The Departure’ refers to an episode, in Canto XXXII of the Purgatorio, in which Dante is prepared for his admission to Paradise. Thus, like The Mission of Virgil, The Great Procession prepares the way for its successor.

The final section of Wuorinen’s Dante-ballet, The River of Light, naturally enough responds to the final part of the Commedia, the Paradiso. It is here scored for an ensemble of thirteen players so that as we listen to three parts Wuorinen’s Dante Trilogy the sound-world grows increasingly various and expansive; paradoxically, the pieces also diminish in length!: flute/piccolo, oboe, clarinet/bass clarinet, three percussion, harp, piano, celesta, violin, viola, cello, double-bass. It is played as a single uninterrupted movement, although distinct sections can be discerned. There are no explicit textual references here and the music is quite varied. By turns it gives us lines that are sustained and calm or fragmentary and harassed; there are aggressively percussive sections—and some that are tinklingly so; there is a beautiful solemn passage which is hushed and reverential, like some other worldly ritual. For all that Wuorinen’s score—unlike the scires of the two previous parts of the Trilogy—provides no references to specific passages in Dante’s poem. The closing pages of The River of Light—though the title itself comes from Canto XXX of the Paradiso—in which piano and percussion chords underlie a song-like melody carried by clarinet, oboe, violin, viola and cello, and decorated by the piccolo, evoke Dante’s approach to l’alto triumfo del regno verace (the high triumph of the true kingdom) in the last canto of his poem.

This is music which I have found fascinating, even if—after several—listenings I don’t find it wholly satisfying. I suspect that while working for the theatre was doubtless stimulating for Wuorinen, it may also have placed some constraints on his work. There are places where ideas cry out for further development and there are a few places which sound like necessary theatrically-required padding rather than the products of musical necessity. And I wonder how much has been lost in the reduction to chamber music proportions. Certainly I hope, one day, to hear the original score.

As you might expect from so enthusiastic an advocate of Wuorinen’s music, Oliver Knussen’s is an excellent reading and the recorded sound is generally very good.

Carson Cooman
Fanfare, May 2008

While it would be extremely difficult to sum up the overwhelming experiencing of reading Dante’s entire Commedia in just 70 minutes of music, Wuorinen’s ballets create an aural distillation of moods that are equally enjoyable whether experienced as “pure music” or combined with a knowledge of the plots of Dante’s work. Wuorinen’s vibrant, sinewy sound world has always been capable of tremendous versatility and deep musical expression; thus it is not a surprise that his flair extends to music for the ballet stage. © 2008 Fanfare Read complete review

American Record Guide, May 2008

Charles Wuorinen’s Dante Trilogy is a sequence of three ballets written in the 90s for Peter Martins and the New York City Ballet, inspired by the three books of the Divine Comedy. There is no explicit tone poetry on display here. Instead, Wuorinen, as might be expected, concentrates on purely formal elements of the poem to suggest musical directions: the number of syllables in a line, the number of stanzas, the number seven, and so forth. The intensive structural play beloved of serialists (symmetry, mirroring) is given the most emphasis, with all the dizzying fun set in Wuorinen’s typical astringent atonal style.

These pieces are all recorded in their chamber versions. The Mission of Virgil (1993) takes us around the Inferno in a grand display for two pianos. Entertainingly episodic (this is ballet music, after all), some of the music is a delight, while the more diffuse incidental music-the stuff that gets edited out for ballet suites-is in need of the stage. Messrs Moredock and Grant, both pianists with the New York City Ballet, are spectacular.

The Great Procession (1995) through Purgatory is given here for six players (flute(s), clarinet(s), violin, cello, percussion and piano). Its various episodes are propelled along by an amusing 3D-second recurring bit of “traveling music”. The sextet scoring is too thin to support the intensity of ideas. There is also some poor clarinet playing (especially in ‘The Griffin’), unusual for this normally flawless ensemble.

Paradise is at least theoretically reached with The River of Light (1996), though the composer tells us the music is “in no sense narrative” or “referential”. What it is is episodic to the point of incoherence, lacking in the humor and relative lightness of touch heard in the other two pieces in the set. Scored for an ensemble of 13 players, it does not offer a meaningful climax to the set, in spite of what seems to be intended as a glittering ending (it’s just shrieky).

The Mission of Virgil was previously released on Koch. The other two pieces were recorded in concert at the Guggenheim in 1999.

Philip Clark
Gramophone, April 2008

The fierce intellectual balls of Charles Wuorinen’s music, as heard on “The Dante Trilogy”, takes him direct to where his art is. His Dante cycle was originally conceived as a ballet score but has a flinty lyricism and dramatic poise that makes for compelling listening in the abstract. Wuorinen’s scores are notoriously tricky and intricate; no problem for the life-force of The Group for Contemporary Music. © 2008 Gramophone

David Denton
David's Review Corner, February 2008

Charles Wuorinen became an advocate of atonality after spending his younger years in the conventional world of tonality. Like most converts he has become evangelical in his dedication to cutting edge modernity, and maybe future generations will show that such devotion was totally justified. Everything seems so dense and busy that I end up unable to see the musical tree through the impenetrable forest. Taking its inspiration from Dante’s Divina Commedia, the three books,The Mission of Virgil, The Great Procession and The River of Light were used to form three ballets composed for the New York City Ballet, the composition spread over the years 1993 to 1996. At the same time he prepared versions for full orchestra and chamber ensemble, and it is the latter score we have on this recording. It is played by The Group for Contemporary Music, a superb American-based ensemble here conducted by Oliver Knussen. The first of the ballets is given to piano with four hands played by the pianists Richard Moredock and Cameron Grant, the difficulty of the writing obviously presenting formidable problems. The two following scores are cast for small groups of strings, woodwind, keyboard and percussion. It is the lack of strongly defined rhythms that will prove a boundary to those who have come no further forward than Stravinsky. It may sound perverse, but newcomers could well start at track 14, midway through The Great Procession, where the pulse is most recognizable, and continue into the less-densely scored River of Light, the most easily accessed part of the ballet, and move back to the beginning. The performers dig into the music with an obvious enthusiasm, their individual and collective virtuosity plain to hear. The Mission of Virgil was originally released on the ill-fated Koch International label in 1998, the remaining tracks coming from a public performance in 1999. Everything is rather up-front but clear and with a ready impact.

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