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The Cheerful Earfull!, February 2010

…the most popular artists featured on “The Cheerful Earfull.” First up, an effort from a renown composer who’s peeking out at us all impish-like.

Yes, it’s John Corigliano. I only recently got my grubby paws on his “Dylan Thomas Trilogy.” Trust me, you’ll love this massively entertaining combo of music, poetry and soaring vocals. I know I do.

Walter Simmons
Fanfare, November 2009

A Dylan Thomas Trilogy…is one major work that appears to reflect some of his deepest and most introspective creative thinking…

To read the complete review, please visit Fanfare online.

Walter Simmons
Fanfare, May 2009

CORIGLIANO, J.: Dylan Thomas Trilogy (A) (T. Allen, T. Jackson, J. Tessier, Nashville Symphony and Chorus, L. Slatkin) 8.559394
CORIGLIANO, J.: Mr. Tambourine Man / 3 Hallucinations (Plitmann, Buffalo Philharmonic, Falletta) 8.559331
CORIGLIANO, J.: Symphony No. 3, "Circus Maximus" / Gazebo Dances (University of Texas Wind Ensemble, Junkin) 8.559601

One of the most widely praised and highly regarded American composers of his generation, John Corigliano, now in his early seventies, is currently enjoying significant attention from Naxos’s “American Classics” series. The three recent releases discussed here represent a broad survey of his work, drawn from all periods of his composing career. Corigliano’s early pieces reveal a strong affinity with the sensitive, nostalgic music of Samuel Barber. However, as he was approaching the age of 40, he transformed his creative identity, embracing the general approach known for a time as the “New Romanticism”—a style associated during the 1970s with the music of Jacob Druckman and others who were struggling to free themselves from the aesthetic straitjacket of serialism, but without regressing to traditional tonality. The proponents of this style attempted to impress listeners in more spontaneously visceral or emotional ways than serial music typically did, by creating richly orchestrated aural canvases, highlighted by strongly characterized gestures and striking juxtapositions, at times incorporating quotations of earlier music within the context of such soundscapes. However, Corigliano came to this approach from the opposite direction, producing compositions whose vivid flamboyance and unrestrained eclecticism greatly appealed to listeners who were favorably inclined toward the innovative, but nevertheless sought some measure of immediate sensual gratification. By the 1980s, he had settled into a broadly based and highly flexible approach of his own that rejected nothing on principle, while tailoring each composition according to its own specific requirements. Perhaps what is most characteristic of the mature Corigliano is his attraction to novel, provocative conceits that generate interest in and of themselves; this he shares in common with, for example, Dominick Argento. In fact, the program notes to one of these releases states, “For the past three decades I have started the compositional process by building a shape, or architecture, before coming up with any musical material.” Long series of numbered sonatas or string quartets are antithetical to his nature. The results of his approach have proven to be spectacularly successful: Corigliano has won the Pulitzer Prize and the esteemed Grawemeyer Award—perhaps the two most prestigious awards available to the serious composer; his opera The Ghosts of Versailles was commissioned and produced by the Metropolitan Opera, and subsequently elsewhere as well; of two film scores, the first (Altered States) was nominated for an Academy Award, while the second (The Red Violin) actually won the award. And he has drawn praise—even if begrudgingly at times—from listeners and commentators representing all points on the compositional spectrum.

The most important of the works discussed here may indeed prove to be Corigliano’s magnum opus: A Dylan Thomas Trilogy. This composition, completed in 1999, was nearly four decades—and several stages—in the making. If I have had a complaint about Corigliano’s work over the years, it is that he seems to focus more on elements that will make an impact on his audience than on searching for and expressing his own inner life (yes, how hopelessly sentimental and old-fashioned of me). But this work, occupying the composer as long as it did, comes close to being a personal autobiography in music. Corigliano had long been strongly drawn to Thomas’s poetry, and found much in the Welsh poet’s expression that he could relate to his own life; his selection of poems written at different times in the poet’s life, and the settings he composed at different times in his life created a natural parallel between the two. The trilogy began in 1961 with a setting for mezzo-soprano, chorus, and orchestra of Thomas’s Fern Hill, which attained considerable success as an independent work. This was followed in 1970 by Poem in October, also an independent work, for tenor and chamber ensemble. Almost as long as those two sections combined, Poem on his Birthday followed in 1976, this time for baritone soloist, with chorus and full symphony orchestra. This completed the trilogy, as presented at that time as a full evening in recognition of the American bicentennial. But Corigliano was not satisfied with the result. The first two sections owed much to Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 and, to a lesser extent, Summer Music, although Poem in October ventured into a pan-diatonicism somewhat more prickly than Barber might have employed. Both evoked a peaceful, playful past, recalled wistfully. The third section reflected the poet’s state of emotional turbulence at the time of his 35th birthday (he was to live only four years more), with fiercely extravagant imagery to which Corigliano responded with the full range of his recently liberated musical imagination. But he was not convinced that the juxtaposition of incompatible musical styles really worked. Not until the late 1990s did he come upon the idea of creating a framework that would supply the necessary coherence. Turning to Author’s Prologue, one of Thomas’s final works, he found what he was looking for—a selection that captured the poet’s untamed earthiness, while providing the retrospective posture of an older, more seasoned protagonist. Drawing upon musical material used in Poem on his Birthday, Corigliano set this passage for baritone soloist against a backdrop of chorus and orchestra, using a largely atonal, and at times spoken, declamation. The first portion of this Prologue serves as an introduction to the entire work, while the second half is inserted between Fern Hill and Poem in October. This reshaping treated the two earlier pieces as “flashbacks,” reflections on the innocent past from the perspective of the turbulent present, the transitions occurring naturally and convincingly. With a few other adjustments, such as changing the mezzo-soprano to a boy soprano in Fern Hill, and expanding the scoring of Poem in October to match the rest of the work (though retaining the harpsichord, which creates a wonderful effect), he finally achieved the coherence and integration he had sought. The result, which spans the majority of his compositional career, is not only a convincing structure, but it is also a very moving work—more so than in any of its previous incarnations. It is not an “easy” work by any means—not something one can expect to enjoy in the background: it requires a good deal of concentration, as well as close attention to the texts, in order to derive its full meaning. But it may prove to be Corigliano’s greatest, most deeply personal, and most emotionally sincere work. The performance here is extremely fine: the vocal soloists are excellent, and Leonard Slatkin directs a fully sympathetic and convincing performance. My only complaint is that the choral rendering of the text is barely intelligible, even for one who is following it in print.

Of all the unusual compositional conceits that Corigliano has devised, perhaps none is more provocative and unlikely than Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan. Explaining that Bob Dylan’s career as an iconic folk poet during the 1960s totally passed him by, the composer was prompted by a colleague to look at Dylan’s song lyrics as a possible source of texts. (I must admit that the notion that Corigliano might have lived through the 1960s without ever having heard, say, “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “Mr. Tambourine Man” strains my credulity to the breaking point; but for the moment I’m willing to take it at face value and let it go at that.) Convinced upon examining them that many of these texts had some merit, Corigliano decided to set a selection of seven to music—but without any knowledge of or reference to their original melodic settings, and without any attempt to evoke the style of folk or popular music. He explains with admirable clarity in the program notes: “Folk music tends to set choruses of ever-changing words to the same simple melody: reflecting the emotion or the sound of the words is simply not what folk music tries to do. Whereas concert composers…often change the melodic and accompanimental settings of the words to reflect the particular colors and sounds, as well as the feelings and meanings, of the text. Obviously I belong to this latter category of composer, and this is reflected in what you’ll hear.” Composed for soprano and piano in 2000 at the request of Sylvia McNair, the cycle was orchestrated in 2003, now calling for an “amplified soprano.” Corigliano writes, “I wanted a fully-trained virtuosic concert singer who could still perform in a more ‘natural’ voice. I didn’t want her to need to give an ‘operatic’ performance of texts so antithetical to that cultivated sound just to project over the orchestra.” The premiere of this version was given by the Israeli soprano Hila Plitmann, who performs it here.

“Listeners familiar with Dylan’s music for these songs will no doubt be surprised at these settings,” writes the composer. As someone who lived through the 1960s and was well aware of Dylan’s own versions of about half of the texts selected, I can tell you that that is a tremendous understatement! I cannot deny that my reaction upon hearing the first minute of Corigliano’s setting of Mr. Tambourine Man—which serves as a prelude to the cycle—was to laugh hysterically at the preposterous incongruity of the basic conceit. Checking upon the reactions of several friends and colleagues who are contemporaries of mine, I discovered that most responded roughly as I did. However, the difference was that some of my consultees could not get past the absurdity and simply bailed out, while others, such as myself, were able to calm down and try to experience these settings on their own terms. I am forced to conclude that the result is largely successful, and—whether or not Corigliano truly never heard Blowin’ in the Wind—he has managed to create musical settings that (a) bear no resemblance whatsoever to Dylan’s music; (b) capture the spirit and meaning of the texts, and do so with remarkable imagination; and (c) form a satisfying song cycle that meets the standards of a serious concert work. It is presumably for reasons such as these that this work won the most recent Grammy Award for Best New Classical Composition—the third such award Corigliano has received. My only reservation about the songs is that Corigliano’s music offers little melodic interest of its own; there is nothing “catchy” about these settings. As with the ambitious Dylan Thomas work, no one can expect to relegate this cycle to background music. Each song is a work of serious art that must be followed with close attention. Finally, what I would truly love to know is the reaction of Bob Dylan himself (who of course had to grant permission for this endeavor), assuming that he has heard Corigliano’s settings. And if he has not bothered to hear them, he loses a lot of stature in my mind.

Soprano Hila Plitmann seems to render the songs with just the qualities the composer was seeking, while the Buffalo Philharmonic realizes the extraordinarily varied orchestrations brilliantly. And for those baby-boomers who are interested, the other songs whose texts were selected are: Clothes Line, Masters of War, All along the Watchtower, Chimes of Freedom, and, as a postlude, Forever Young.

For a long time I felt that the music Corigliano supplied for Ken Russell’s 1980 film Altered States was his best work. And even as a fervent and unashamed Russell enthusiast (who saw the film the day it opened), I asserted that the music was the most impressive component of the film, which struck me as rather a potboiler. When the soundtrack album was released shortly thereafter, I raved about it in these pages. Several years later the soundtrack was reissued on CD, but I gather it is no longer available. With a script by Paddy Chayefsky, Altered States is a science fiction film in which a research psychologist attempts to discover the essence of life by reversing his own human evolution through immersion in a sensory deprivation tank, and later by indulging in Indian rituals involving hallucinogenic mushrooms. Corigliano’s score was one of his early ventures in the aforementioned “New Romanticism” style, and the result achieved a degree of flamboyant extravagance that left Druckman and his cohorts far behind, and might be likened to Le sacre on LSD. Corigliano subsequently extracted from the score a 15-minute concert suite entitled Three Hallucinations, which seems to have developed a pretty successful life of its own. These selections certainly provide a representative sample of the film music—eerily ominous and wildly psychedelic—although a dreamlike treatment of fragments of “Rock of Ages,” as refracted through elegiac and mysterious cluster-harmony, gives undue emphasis to one of the weaker ideas in the score. It is performed here with considerable zest. However, serious admirers of Corigliano’s music are urged to search out used copies of the complete soundtrack, which can be found on the Internet.

Ever since its world premiere in Austin, Texas, by the University of Texas Wind Ensemble, conducted by Jerry Junkin, in February 2005, followed later that year by a performance by the same forces at New York’s Carnegie Hall, Corigliano’s Circus Maximus has become something of a sensation within the band sub-culture. Completed the previous year, on a commission from the Texans, the work is predicated on the notion of a spatial conception—i.e., a work in which the audience is surrounded by the players, whose physical placement is clearly and precisely specified. Those specifications, which call for a band on the stage, a smaller marching band, and another ensemble placed at various points throughout the hall, are clearly indicated on a diagram included in the accompanying booklet. However, the recording at hand, as fine as it is in conventional terms, is a standard two-channel recording. Therefore, the listener is left to his imagination in attempting to conjure this all-important aspect of the work’s structure and—more important—sonic impact. The title of the work and its point of reference, both of which came later, concerns the brutal entertainments enjoyed by the ancient Romans during their period of “high decadence,” and attempts to draw a parallel between that time and our own, what with our relish of vulgar “reality” shows and public scandals. As apt and intriguing as this concept may be, instrumental music is simply not a suitable medium for social commentary. Furthermore, nothing in the music actually creates a connection with the title concept; indeed, any number of other concepts would be equally plausible as correlates to the music itself. Therefore, the extra-musical “message” of the work is an enticement that doesn’t really deliver, while the fundamental premise of antiphonal spatiality is compromised by the limitations of the recording technology used, although it may be quite effective in a live performance.

So the somewhat deflated reality that confronts the listener to this recording is a 35-minute work subdivided into eight connected movements of contrasting tone, scored for large wind ensemble. But this is not to suggest that there is anything routine about the music itself. It has been said that Corigliano’s primary compositional concern is to make a tremendous splash on his audience, but to accomplish this at a high artistic level. I will avoid the temptation to raise the question as to whether there isn’t an inherent contradiction between the two portions of that objective, but will state unequivocally that this piece makes one helluva splash! The work opens in a state of intense alarm, and introduces the primary motif, an exceedingly frightening, siren-like idea that seems to herald an imminent crisis of immense proportion. This motif recurs at various points throughout the work. Corigliano seems to possess a limitless imagination for creating musical “special effects,” and Circus Maximus, not unlike Altered States, provides the opportunity for him to give full rein to this gift. After the sense of distress created by the opening “Introitus,” the second section, “Screen/Siren” provides some relief, as a saxophone quartet evokes a mood suggestive of a nocturnal urban street scene in a detective show from around 1960 (not that there’s anything wrong with this). The third section, “Channel Surfing” presents a series of brief, contrasting musical images, including some really striking effects that shift rapidly from one to the next. This is followed by “Night Music I,” which suggests another nocturnal scene, but this one taking place in some isolated area untouched by human beings, so that time seems infinite, the only motion resulting from natural phenomena. “Night Music II” is intended to evoke “the hyper night music of the cities,” and calls forth sounds and gestures associated with jazz. This culminates in the sixth movement, “Circus Maximus,” intended to be the high point of the work, “a carnival of sonoric activity,” the composer writes. It is wild, as all that has come before seems to be happening at once, leading to a climax that truly shakes the rafters. “Prayer” follows—a quiet, hymn like melody that unfolds against a simple, triadic accompaniment that is not, however, always in the same key as the melody. Perhaps the most simple and direct portion of the work, it was not as affecting emotionally as I had anticipated. This section leads directly into “Coda: Veritas,” which returns to the disturbing music of the opening section, mounting in intensity, and finally ending with “a 12-gauge shot gun” firing a “full load-black powder ‘popper’ made by Winchester.” I think it is apparent that music this strikingly vivid might be associated plausibly with any number of different scenarios. But what is also apparent upon reflection, as one listens repeatedly to the work, is that one’s first couple of auditions make the strongest impact; after that one’s interest begins to pall.

Filling out the CD is the composer’s arrangement for band of his Gazebo Dances from 1972, one of the last works of his “early” period. Although it was originally conceived as a work for piano four hands, its title points to “the pavilions often seen on village greens in towns throughout the American countryside, where public band concerts were given on summer evenings early last century.” The work also exists in a version for orchestra, but the band arrangement is clearly the most effective. Very slight in aesthetic weight, it might be said to fall somewhere on the spectrum between Leonard Bernstein’s Divertimento and Aaron Copland’s Outdoor Overture.

The University of Texas Wind Ensemble, under its conductor Jerry Junkin, performs the Gazebo Dances suavely and with panache, while bringing to Circus Maximus an explosion of well-controlled power.

Allen Gimbel
American Record Guide, March 2009

A Dylan Thomas Trilogy (1960, rev. 1999) is actually five pieces: three Dylan Thomas poems set by Corigliano in 1960, 1969, and 1975 and two excerpts from Thomas’s (verse) Author’s Prologue to his Collected Poems, which serve as prelude and intermezzo to the three main entries. The overarching topic of the work is three way-stations in the poet’s journey through life: youth (‘Fern Hill’), maturity (‘Poem in October’), and finality (‘Poem on his Birthday’). The Prologue excerpts serve as aesthetic and personal reflections of the poet’s life (the ‘Prologue’ is actually Thomas’s penultimate work).

Corigliano refers to the work as “a memory play in the form of an oratorio”, set for tenor, baritone, chorus, and orchestra, with a boy soprano appearing in the middle of the first poem dealing with childhood remembrance. The opening prologue, depicting the poet in retrospect, is set as a dramatic recitation for baritone with choral interjections and orchestra. ‘Fern Hill’ is a lovely barcarolle for chorus with a boy soprano materializing at the its center. The older poet (composer) returns in the Second Prologue excerpt reminding us of his darker side earned by years of battle. The ‘Poem in October’ finds the protagonist on his 30th birthday taking stock at mid-career (he was not to live much longer). Tenor Tessier gives a sensitive and moving portrayal. Sir Thomas and chorus return in the finale, ‘Poem on his Birthday’ (his 35th), a lengthy and sullen meditation on impending death and potential transfiguration.

The piece as a whole depicts the span of a short but packed life. The production is well sung and recorded, the Ashville forces giving their all impressively. Notes by the composer and texts included.

Philip Clark
Gramophone, January 2009

CORIGLIANO, J.: Mr. Tambourine Man / 3 Hallucinations (Plitmann, Buffalo Philharmonic, Falletta) 8.559331
CORIGLIANO, J.: Dylan Thomas Trilogy (A) (T. Allen, T. Jackson, J. Tessier, Nashville Symphony and Chorus, L. Slatkin) 8.559394

New takes on old Dylans—Thomas and Bob—fail to capture the originals’ spirit

Something’s going to have to be done about mainstream contemporary composers, without a Plan B of their own, freeloading off popular culture for street cred. For every composer who uses jazz and rock responsibly there are at least twenty who don’t, and now John Corigliano serves up settings of Bob Dylan lyrics about as authentic to their source as Bert Kaempfert’s Swingin’ Safari is a rigorous primer about the anthropology of African music.

For anyone who properly cares about Dylan and appreciates the depth of his achievements and innovations, Corigliano’s Disneyfication will be a bitter pill. To clarify: these are not arrangements or variations on Dylan’s original themes. Corigliano is under the misapprehension that “folk music tends to set choruses of ever-changing words to the same simple melody”. But the lesson of Dylan, as he developed the heritage of early heroes like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, is that supple harmonic shifts can support a telling inference in the lyric, and that specific words allied to appropriate music conjure up a magical elixir.

Where Dylan finds clarity and individual expression, Corigliano creates vapid rhetoric and empty effect. As the soprano voice emerges from a portentous orchestral preamble filled with pompous chromatic polyfiller to declaim “Hey! Mr Tambourine Man, play a song for me”, the po-faced sincerity and woeful lack of historical awareness is beyond parody. Inevitably a wealth of association kicks in—the genteel whimsy of Dylan’s original guitar accompaniment; a perfectly constructed melody line that’s both catchy and allusive; that distinctive vocal lisp as Dylan enunciates the third syllable of “tambourine”. Sad to say, but the Corigliano take is as corporate and colourful as corrugated iron. And, in the finale, as the orchestra falls away to leave the soprano singing “Forever Young”, Corigliano hits his nadir. The “drama” in Dylan is in the fabric of his material and the manner of its performance—this is the great man reduced to high-camp Broadway.

Robert Zimmerman morphed into Bob Dylan because of his love of Dylan Thomas, and Naxos issue Corigliano’s Dylan Thomas Trilogy as a companion piece. Is it any better than the above? Could it be worse? Thomas Allen’s graceful delivery of Corigliano’s vocal lines is a plus, but does the trilogy get to the core of Thomas’s imagery? The answer, my friends, is blowin’ in the wind…

John France
MusicWeb International, December 2008

This was an enigmatic CD to review. On the one hand the texts set by John Corigliano include some of my favourite poems from the works of Dylan Thomas. In fact, it was a reading of the author’s Poem in October that introduced me to his writings. Since finding a copy of the ‘Collected Poems’ in a Glasgow second-hand book shop, I soon found that the bleaker Poem on His Birthday and the more summery Fern Hill were also moving and important contributions to British literature. Therefore, as soon as I saw this CD, I knew that at least the words set were right up my street.

I have never (knowingly) heard any music by Mr. Corigliano. There is no particular reason for this, save it is not possible to know the music of every composer, and I guess I have just not got round to exploring, or even discovering his music. So this was going to be an adventure in more ways than one.

Having decided that the text was impressive, I was a little disconcerted by the scale and form of the work. Three things niggled me. Firstly, it appeared to be a piece that had been written over a considerable period of time (1959–1999)—so nearly forty years. I wondered what would be the impact of the composer’s musical development on the sum of the parts. Secondly I noticed that the work was long—nearly 67 minutes for four poems set. I asked myself if it would hold my attention. Lastly I read that there were narrated sections of the work alongside settings for baritone, tenor and boy soprano and chorus. I wondered what the formal balance would be like, whether it would be internally consistent.

And finally I listened to the piece—straight through, giving it my best shot, no distractions. I should not have liked it. As I listened, everything in me kept telling me that it was too disjointed and too diverse in style. In fact, it often seems to be parodying other genres; it is in danger of becoming one long “stylistic caricature”. Yet I was totally blown away by it. It is stunning, impressive, wonderful, beautiful, disturbing and virtually every other adjective I can think of. It is somehow or other, a masterpiece.

Its history is complicated. The first section to be written and played was Fern Hill, which was composed in 1959–60 when Corigliano was only 22 years old. He wrote that what captivated him about these words were the poet’s ‘young and easy’ summers on the farm of the same name.

Ten years later the Chamber Music Society of the Lincoln Center requested a new work for its opening season. This time the composer chose Poem in October. Five years later, after a deal of personal disappointments the composer decided to set the dark Poem on his Birthday. In this poem Dylan Thomas does not celebrate his age, but ‘spurns it’. Corigliano believed that he had completed the Trilogy. In 1976, the work was premiered in the Washington National Cathedral.

However, the music did not remain static. Fortunately the composer’s life situation improved and he began to feel at peace with himself. He notes that now he did not feel the work was either emotionally or formally complete. He believed that the Poem in October and Fern Hill were “both pastorals, [and] sounded too similar to each other to be effective played consecutively, and yet too different from the mature setting of Poem on His Birthday to which they should lead”.

So in the late 1990s, Corigliano completed the work. He realised that although he had written an oratorio, it did in fact have operatic overtones. He decided to introduce an adult (the narrator and baritone) to interpret his ‘future through his past’. The two ‘pastoral’ poems would then come to be seen as memories and not as ‘real-time’ events. Therefore, the listener has to understand them from the perspective of the Birthday poem. To make this transition formally sound Corigliano chose a new text from Dylan Thomas to link the original three movements together. He chose Thomas’s penultimate work, the Author’s Prologue to The Collected Poems. This gave the final structure and form to this wide-ranging work.

What is this work all about? It is really a journey—from birth to death. It represents the three stages of Manhood. In its final form, the work opens with the Sir Thomas Allen, as narrator and singer, a large chorus and orchestra exploring ‘This day winding down now, At God speeded summer’s end…’ Then follows the beautiful Fern Hill scored for chamber orchestra and boy soprano. This is truly pastoral music that sounds more like Vaughan Williams (but not quite) than American avant-garde! Pierre Ruhe in the Washington Post (March 1999) suggested that the music has “familiar homespun chord progressions, so fresh and innocently American. Musically the Welsh countryside is nowhere in sight.” The second part of the Prologue is in complete contrast. Much more modern sounding music well parodies the ‘hullaballoing clan, Agape with woe…’ The Poem in October seems to owe much to the styles of Benjamin Britten and Igor Stravinsky. It is very thoughtful music that explores the thought of this poem in a sympathetic way. There are many very beautiful passages here.

Lastly the Poem on his Birthday. This is the longest section of the work. Richard Whitehouse quoted in a review on these pages has suggested that this section “sounds like the undigested influence of Britten’s War Requiem at key junctures”. I believe that this is an appropriate comparison. Yet, I consider that this music works and gives an impressive and inspiring—if somewhat challenging—conclusion to Corigliano’s massive meditation on the poems of Dylan Thomas and the journey from life to death.

In spite of the eclectic nature of this music, the fact that one minute it can sound like Britten’s Spring Symphony and another like Sir Paul McCartney’s Standing Stone, somehow it works as a piece of music. It is superbly performed by the soloists, the Nashville Symphony and their conductor Leonard Slatkin. There appears to be an inherent, but largely intangible constructive principle that stops this work descending into a series of disjointed tableaux. I cannot quite fathom what it is—it is probable that it is Dylan Thomas’s poetry that acts as the common thread.

I feel the same way about this piece that I did after first hearing William Bolcom’s Songs of Innocence and Experience: I am in the presence of a great work, which somehow should not be a masterpiece, but actually is. Herein lies the enigma.

Howard Goldstein
BBC Music Magazine, December 2008


These world premier recordings of major vocal works by John Corigliano both share a ‘Dylan’, making a double review irresistible…A Dylan Thomas Trilogy consists of works dating back to 1959 (‘Fern Hill’), 1970 (‘Poem in October’), and 1976 (‘Poem on his Birthday’). By 1999, Corigliano had transformed these into a full-fledged oratorio for three soloists, chorus and large orchestra. Mr Tambourine Man (2000) sets lyrics by Bob Dylan for amplified soprano and orchestra. Having never heard the original songs, he created a unique example of ‘reverse crossover’, responding to the texts with the same intelligent approach to word painting, text alteration, and formal shaping that he provided the other Dylan.

The progress of Thomas’s voice from boyhood to maturity in the chosen poems is mirrored in the evolution of the composer’s, where the most recent music contains a welcome dose of acerbity. ‘Poem on his Birthday’ is thus the culmination of the trilogy, where the poet’s raging against, and eventual acceptance of, middle age inspired the composer to create a musical language quite different than any he had used before.

Corigliano is especially sensitive to Thomas’s violent, often musical imagery, filled with birds, ghosts, and stormy seas, and one hears a lightweight version of this new style in the Three Hallucinations from the film Altered States that appear on the other disc…Slatkin and his Nashville forces are persuasive advocates, and Sir Thomas Allen contributes a harrowing performance, but, overall, Corigliano’s invention does not quite measure up to that of the poetry.

The Bob Dylan cycle also charts a progression from innocence (‘Clothes Line’) to the ‘victory of ideas’ (‘Chimes of Freedom’). Here Corigliano’s gifts shine more brightly whether in the jerky, nursery rhyme setting of the title song, the haunting passacaglia that shapes ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, or the simplicity of ‘forever Young’. While there are no overt references to pop music, Corigliano still follows the outlines of the original songs, with mostly strophic settings and clear-cut melodies. Hila Plitmann, with equal experience in opera, film and musical theatre, has exactly the right kind of natural, microphone-friendly delivery, although her overdubbed performance lends the recording an artificial perspective., November 2008

…the whole disc is well performed and the music is lovely. Corigliano knows what he is doing and how to write the music that he wants to hear…the second prologue is vibrant and hints at some of the playful moments from [his opera The] Ghosts [of Versailles], as does the opening of the Poem from October movement…the music is very pretty and well performed…if you are a fan of Romanticism (no neo- prefix needed here), then you will most likely enjoy this disc.

Classical Giz, November 2008

A stunning new release from the Nashville Symphony, who seem to thrive on conquering the difficulties of modern music. They really seem to shine in the challenges modern American composers throw their way (and Corigliano has more than his share). Indeed their absolute best CDs are of music written in the last 15 years (witness their Grammy-winning Joan Tower…the challenge this time is a massive “cantata” with chorus and soloists with poetry texts by Dylan Thomas. The cantata follows Dylan Thomas’ life from young boy (“Fern Hill”, the most tonal movement with chorus and boy soprano soloist), to his 30th year (“Poem in October” for tenor soloist) to just a few years before his death (“Poem on His Birthday” with baritone soloist and chorus). It’s a fascinating progression, each section becoming more complicated and dissonant as the life progresses.

Sir Thomas Allen, the world-famous baritone serves not only as soloist in the last section, but as vocal narrator all the way through. He is absolutely amazing, with no loss of vocal skill after all these years. The CD is worth it for him alone.

Tenor John Tessier is also outstanding (let’s hope we hear a lot more from him in the future). Neither soloist seems to have the least problem negotiating the treacherous vocal lines, and they really bring the words alive. Boy soprano Ty Jackson also does a nice job with his solos.

The Nashville Chorus has never sounded better in what must be an extremely difficult choral part. Their tone in “Fern Hill” is especially outstanding, and easily competes with any of the other existing recordings of just this section. (This section has been recorded elsewhere separately, but this is the premiere recording of the complete cantata.)

A special mention should be made of the recording engineering, some of the finest sound heard on a Naxos disc. The orchestra is well-balanced and the sound has a gorgeous “bloom” to it—while capturing the excitement of the performance in the moment. The balance between all of the elements (orchestra, chorus, soloists) is impeccable.

Uncle Dave Lewis, November 2008

…Naxos’ John Corigliano: A Dylan Thomas Trilogy features Corigliano’s longtime champion Leonard Slatkin leading the Nashville Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in this major cycle, which in the revised version has ballooned to over an hour in length and could easily constitute an evening’s entertainment on its own.

Thomas Allen serves both as baritone soloist and as narrator, and does a splendid job in the role, not only singing but also attempting to channel the spirit of Thomas into his performance, capturing the urgency and frustration that typify the poet. There are other aspects of this project, nevertheless, that seem less than satisfying; while all the voices here are fore grounded and timpani rumble with earthshaking authority…

David Denton
David's Review Corner, October 2008

Last month I was fervently recommending a new Naxos disc of John Corigliano’s recent song cycles, and now I am excited to make my first acquaintance with A Dylan Thomas Trilogy. It was a work he began back in 1960 with the Corigliano’s discovery of Dylan Thomas, the poem Fern Hill so captivating him that he immediately began a setting for solo voice, chorus and orchestra. Ten years elapsed before he added a second section, Poem in October, and a further five years before Poem on his Birthday completed the trilogy. Even at its 1976 world premiere he felt the first two needed separation so as to change mood, yet was anxious to retain Poem on his Birthday to close the work. Searching through Thomas’s work he eventually found Author’s Prologue, and this answered all his wishes. As I commented last month, the New York born composer belongs to that group who work within tonality while using aspects of contemporary influences. Even within this framework you do feel the changes of style that have taken place while composing the work, the Author’s Prologue more readily embracing modern musical innovation. Yet the whole score hangs together surprisingly well considering its protracted conception, its underlying theme of death becoming inevitable at birth still generating a wide tonal palette. The world premiere recording has the distinguished English baritone, Thomas Allen, as speaker and singer in the Prologue and Poem on his birthday; the highly acclaimed Canadian tenor, John Tessier, and a gifted boy treble, Ty Jackson, completing the cast list. Since Leonard Slatkin’s arrival as their Music Advisor, the Nashville Symphony has moved to new levels of international excellence, and on this showing is among the best in the States. They have a good chorus who respond admirably to music that challenges intonation. The recording, made in the orchestra’s concert hall that opened two years ago, is superb. Without doubt among the great recordings of modern American music.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group