Corigliano: Circus Maximus / Junkin, University Of Texas Wind Ensemble [Blu-ray Audio]

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This Blu-ray Audio Disc is only playable on Blu-ray Disc players and not compatible with standard CD or DVD players.


CORIGLIANO Symphony No. 3, “Circus Maximus.” Gazebo Dances Jerry Junkin, cond; U Texas Wind Ens NAXOS NBD0008 (Music-only Blu-ray disc: 52:54)

This program is the first music-only Blu-ray release from Naxos; when the busiest classical record label on the planet decides to take a particular technical direction, it behooves us to take note. Naxos has previously issued both SACDs and DVD-Audio discs but has fallen silent for some time, as far as a high-resolution product is concerned. DVD-Audio is gone and SACD, despite the fierce loyalty of a relatively small base of enthusiasts (like me), hasn’t moved beyond the category of a niche product. Blu-ray movies, of course, have been selling like hotcakes to a wide audience and it follows that there are a hell of a lot of Blu-ray players out there. The technology also provides a medium for state-of-the-art music reproduction, and Naxos now joins a number of more obscure labels including 2L, AIX, and Surround Records to provide us with a specimen of what could become the dominant physical carrier of high-resolution digital music.

Significantly, Naxos has not chosen a “sonic spectacular” warhorse to introduce the new format—another Planets, Carmina Burana, or 1812 —but instead offers the first recording of a major work by an important contemporary composer. John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 3 for large wind ensemble, “Circus Maximus,” composed in 2004, is certainly the right stuff to show off the possibilities of an audiophile medium. The piece considers the similarities between the appetite in ancient Rome for spectacle of ever-increasing extremity and the media-driven, lowest-common-denominator reality-show entertainment culture of our own day. The composer observes in his liner note: “Many of us have become as bemused by the violence and humiliation that flood the 500-plus channels of our television screens as the mobs of imperial Rome, who considered the devouring of human beings by starving lions just another Sunday show.”

Corigliano’s technique involves settling on an “architecture” for a piece before actually developing specific musical materials. The Circus Maximus was, of course, Rome’s enormous outdoor public entertainment venue and the composer wanted his work to “justify the encirclement of the audience by musicians, so that they were in the center of an arena.” His “Circus Maximus” is scored for a typical concert wind ensemble positioned onstage, in front of the listener, plus a substantial “surround band” deployed quite specifically around the hall. (The notes reproduce a diagram for positioning the instruments as published in the G. Schirmer score.)

The 35-minute composition consists of eight sections that run continuously. “Introitus” opens with fanfares from 11 trumpets located around the perimeter of the auditorium’s first tier, soon joined by the onstage players. This attention-grabbing movement leads to “Screen/Siren”—a quartet of saxophones plus string bass placed distantly and emitting plaintive, beckoning cries, a song sung in a tritone-laden harmonic milieu. This is rudely interrupted by “Channel Surfing,” as hyperactive music seems to come from every direction. In the manner of Mahler’s Seventh, there are two contrasted “Night Music” sections, one evoking a dangerous backwoods—wild animals howl—and the second an energetic nocturnal urban environment. Then comes the “Circus Maximus” itself: “Exuberant voices merge into chaos and a frenzy of overstatement,” in the words of the composer. Relief follows in the form of a “Prayer” that possesses a degree of harmonic uncertainty but always seems to have a IV to I resolution as the favored destination. “Coda: Veritas” reprises the first section’s fanfares, building to an almost unbearably intense unison note for all the trumpets, terminated by the firing of a 12-gauge shotgun. (Thoughtfully, Corigliano suggests in the printed score that a performing organization may want to hire “a licensed pyrotechnician,” rather than entrust the operation of the firearm to an everyday percussionist.)

The multichannel audio program, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, is virtually mandatory for a full appreciation of a work in which the spatial deployment of the performers is critical. (In the “Circus Maximus” section, a marching band actually moves through the cacophony produced by the other considerable forces.) Producer Stephen Epstein and engineer Richard King—both have worked for Sony Classical—have created an incredible sonic experience that may change your outlook in terms of the level of visceral excitement achievable with large-scale repertoire in a home listening environment.

Corigliano’s Gazebo Dances, composed originally for piano four-hands, is a much earlier work. There have actually been six previous recordings of the version for band. The four brief movements are inspired by a turn-of-the-last-century concert-band-in-the-park ethos. The composer describes the opening Overture as “Rossini-like”—I hear the Bernstein of Candide. There’s an off-kilter Waltz and a wistful Adagio that reaches a troubled climax. An exuberant Tarantella ends this affable piece, which is surely within the capabilities of most college bands and maybe even a few ambitious high school groups. Delightful stuff.

FANFARE: Andrew Quint

There are two distinct issues with this disc: the music and the recording. Readers of MusicWeb International want to know what to expect from two unknown works by a rarely heard composer. Your reviewer would however be failing in his duty if he did not herald the arrival of a 'new' format for music.
The music first. The symphony is scored for a large wind-band which is detailed in the insert giving not only instrumentation but a diagram of its distribution around the large auditorium at the University of Texas. As it is the composer’s intention that we are surrounded by the players and impacted from all angles, the DTS Master soundtrack is the one to hear. The opening leaps out from behind the listener and much of the first three movements come from discrete groups of musicians placed behind and to the sides. The work fully deserves the title 'symphony' because the themes announced in the early stages are developed extensively in proper symphonic style culminating in recalls of earlier music near the end. Corigliano writes about his wish to draw parallels between the shows at the Ancient Roman Circus Maximus and the current preoccupation with an increasingly intrusive media pandering to the lowest common denominator through 'reality' shows. Whilst we may not feed the religious to the lions, we do seem to watch public humiliation with greater and greater relish. The idea also gave him the excuse he sought to surround his audience with performers. For me the music works quite well and is certainly not hard to enjoy even if it is a bit nerve-racking awaiting the next unexpectedly angled assault. The two Night Music movements are reminiscent of Mahler's pairing in the Seventh Symphony with their fierce activity but here the two nights are of nature and of the city. Night Music 1 is atmospheric but more than just sound-effects because it is thematically linked to what has gone before, particularly the 'primitive calls' heard in the Introitus. Night Music 2 serves as a scherzo for his Symphony, full of dance rhythms and punctuated by fierce outbursts culminating in a climax of quite devastating impact. This is followed by the reflective Prayer and a short but dramatic coda Veritas. The work closes with a gun-shot for which detailed instructions are given in the score, just in case anyone should try to use the 'wrong' gun! The Gazebo Dances are orchestrated from a set of piano four-hand pieces and scored for a more normal wind-band. They are very agreeable with the easy charm of Malcolm Arnold's light music and as beautifully recorded as the main work.
To focus on the recording and the medium. This is not the first music issue on Blu-Ray but it is the first from mass-market leaders Naxos and they have announced several more including four Dvorák symphonies. Clearly they are seriously testing out the market for a medium which will not play on anything except a Blu-Ray-capable player, thus the notice on the packaging about it not working on a CD or standard DVD player. Given that the classical market is a tiny fraction of the CD market, that modern classical music is a fraction of that fraction, and finally that Blu-Ray is a fraction of the DVD market, Naxos have set themselves a huge task to sell more than a handful of any one disc in this series. This 2006 recording was made in 24-bit 88.2 kHz and this fact is emblazoned across the top of the cover as if it mattered. What you hear is not 24-bit / 88.2 kHz, that was the digital format for the failed DVD-Audio market, but DTS High Definition Master Audio and that provides 24-bit 96 kHz in 6 channels: 5 surround and one for the subwoofer if you have one. Naxos made a series of DVD-A discs a few years back, thus the present recording format; then they tried out SACD - yet another format. Both failed because few people had the equipment to play the discs and Naxos withdrew from that market. Blu-Ray is different because it is possible to play these music-only discs on any Blu-Ray video equipped home cinema system. How many people will purchase both the latest Hollywood blockbuster and John Corigliano's latest symphony remains to be seen! This particular issue is very well recorded indeed. I would go so far as to say it is one of the best I've ever heard. Since the music demands actual surround distribution of forces the use of the extra channels is not merely self indulgence by the engineers. The dynamic range on the disc is little short of frightening. If you do not jump when the music starts you have not turned the volume up far enough and you will not hear the quietest passages, of which there are plenty. Why the disc requests contact with the internet I do not know. I tried saying yes and no for two playings and detected no change in facilities. Maybe someone somewhere in Naxos marketing has noted the fact that I played the disc. I will be very interested to hear the Dvorák symphonies which make very different, much subtler, demands on a surround recording.  

-- Dave Billinge, MusicWeb International

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: NBD0008

  • UPC: 730099000864

  • Label: Naxos

  • Composer: John Corigliano

  • Conductor: Jerry Junkin

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: University of Texas Wind Ensemble