Corigliano concerto, three ways

Classical Sounds

March 03, 1996|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

John Corigliano, Piano Concerto, "Gazebo Dances," "Voyage," "Summer Fanfare," "Promenade Overture" and "Campane di )R Ravello," performed by pianist James Tocco (in the concerto), the Louisville Orchestra, with Lawrence Leighton Smith conducting (First Edition Recordings of the Louisville Orchestra LCD 008).

Corigliano, Piano Concerto, "Elegy," "Tournaments" and "Fantasia on an Ostinato," performed by pianist Barry Douglas (in the concerto) and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin conducting (RCA Victor Red Seal 09026-68100-2).

Corigliano, Piano Concerto, Frank Ticheli, "Radiant Voices" and "Postcard," performed by pianist Alain Lefevre (in the concerto), the Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Carl St. Clair conducting (Koch International Classics 3-7250-2HI).

Awhile back, long before the early 1990s, when his opera "The Ghosts of Versailles" and his impassioned response to the AIDS crisis, the Symphony No. 1, made him famous, Corigliano complained that no one was interested in performing or recording his 1968 Piano Concerto.

That wasn't completely true. It was recorded for Mercury by the forces who gave the first performance -- pianist Hilde Somer, conductor Victor Allesandro and the San Antonio Symphony -- and it has been part of James Tocco's concerto repertory for many years.

One can still understand Corigliano's distress. Here was a more than 30-minute-long concerto that promised satisfaction to virtuosos and audiences alike; and it was spiky enough in its Bartokian way to dispel the guilty pleasures that ensued from its sometimes Rachmaninoff-like, sometimes Mahler-like lyricism.

The composer must be pleased, therefore, by this cornucopia of recent recordings. One expected the Douglas-Slatkin-St. Louis version to be the best. Douglas is the only pianist of the three who takes Corigliano's difficult runs, sonorous explosions and virtuoso flourishes without sounding labored; Slatkin is a major conductor, whose devotion to Corigliano's music is long-standing; and the St. Louis Symphony is one of America's ** best.

American roots

But beautifully played as this version is, it is the Louisville version to which I suspect I will return most often. This is a matter of the pianists. The Belfast-born Douglas doesn't seem familiar enough with Corigliano's American roots, certainly not in the way of the Detroit-born, New York-trained Tocco. Douglas makes the concerto sound almost chaste in its clinical brilliance. It is Tocco -- throughout the piece, but particularly in its toccata-like scherzo -- who commands a kind of sleazy color, who makes the listener understand the concerto's raffish references to jazz and the blues and who creates a sense of menace.

The Lefevre-St. Clair version suffers from the same deficiencies (only more so) as the Douglas-Slatkin, without the huge competence with which St. Louis meets the music's technical challenge.

As collections of Corigliano's music, both the Slatkin-St. Louis and the Leighton Smith versions score high marks for idiomatic performances of works otherwise all-but-impossible to find on records.

Ticheli, whose "Radiant Voices" and "Postcard" are recorded with Corigliano's concerto by the St. Clair-Pacific Symphony forces, can be characterized as a third-generation minimalist, a sort of son-of-John (Adams) composer. His work is much like a great deal of the new American music championed by such influential American conductors as Slatkin and David Zinman.

The music in the 20-minute-long "Radiant Voices" builds slowly and lyrically from quiet beginnings to a brilliantly noisy conclusion. The shorter (and hence more likable) "Postcard" is a fanfare for orchestra that suggests a missive from the same country Adams visited -- albeit in milder fashion -- in a "Short Ride in a Fast Machine."

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