WINGING IT: PIANO MUSIC OF JOHN CORIGLIANO
Ursula Oppens, Jerome Lowenthal* (piano)
Cedille 90000 123
The roll call of pianists who have recorded John Corigliano’s best-known solo piano work, the 1985 Fantasia on an Ostinato, is long and impressive: its numbers include Emanuel Ax, Helene Grimaud, David Alan Wehr, Nina Tichman, and David Jalbert. The formidable Etude Fantasy (1976) also has been committed to disc by Stephen Hough, James Tocco, Caroline Hong, and Jalbert.
What sets this new Cedille release apart, apart from the incisive performances of Ursula Oppens (and her colleague Jerome Lowenthal in the duo-piano pieces), is that this is the first recording to be devoted entirely to the Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer’s solo and duo keyboard works. Had room been found to include Corigliano’s four-hand piano arrangement of his 1973 Gazebo Dances, Cedille could have billed the disc as “the complete Corigliano piano works” with (probable) impunity.
Not that anyone has cause for complaint, for all of what is included is worth hearing.
Oppens’ survey ranges chronologically from Kaleidoscope for
two pianos (written in 1959 during Corigliano’s undergraduate years
at New York’s Columbia University) to the album’s title work,
Winging It (2008), whose world premiere she gave in New York in 2009. The music attests to the evolution of the composer’s eclectic musical personality over nearly half a century. While Corigliano
claims no more than modest skills of his own at the keyboard, his writing for piano is superbly crafted, challenging to perform but accessible to listen to, ever eager to venture new coloristic, sonorous and expressive possibilities.
The title work, Winging It, receives its world premiere recording here. It is a triptych of improvisations Corigliano recorded privately in 2007 and 2008, and later notated. The first and third are highly rhythmic, toccata-like, made of chugging dissonant chords and jabbing gestures. The central improvisation is slower, more consonant, more lyrical. Nothing deep here, but the 13 minutes pass most agreeably.
More significant are the Etude Fantasy (Corigliano’s piano masterpiece, to my mind) and the Fantasia on an Ostinato. Oppens makes a tour de force of all five ingeniously plotted etudes, the first taking the left hand through all manner of digital gymnastics, the fourth being a study in wildly ornate ornamentation. Listen to how easily Oppens negotiates the fiendish hand-crossings of No. 3, a
study in alternating fifths and thirds; throughout her performance
she cedes nothing in virtuoso brilliance to Hough (on Hyperion) or Tocco (on Sony).
By the same token, Oppens strikes a convincing balance between improvisatory freedom and structural rigor in the Fantasia. Corigliano, of course, gives the performer considerable leeway to shape and lengthen his minimalist repetitions before revealing the source of the ostinato as the Allegretto from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. Oppens doesn’t abuse the privilege, and her account is among the very best on disc, even given the stiff competition.
An interesting novelty item is Chiaroscuro, a triptych commissioned by the 1997 Murray Dranoff International Two Piano Competition in Miami that calls for two pianos pitched a quarter-tone apart. This kicks up weird mistunings Charles Ives and Henry Cowell never dreamed of in their own quarter-tone keyboard pieces. Incidentally, Corigliano’s claim that the third section, ‘Strobe’, “quotes a chorale by Bach” is erroneous: in fact, the quotation is that of The Old 100th, popularly known as the hymn Praise God, from Whom All Blessings Flow.
The brief Kaleidoscope is built on a lyrical idea that brings to mind
(my mind, anyway) the ‘Make Our Garden Grow’ finale of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide. An amiable trifle, played with as much dash and panache by Oppens and Lowenthal as they bring to the more serious Chiaroscuro. On the strength of this disc, I’d love to hear the remarkable Oppens having a go at the Corigliano Piano Concerto. Cedille, are you game?