Corigliano: Violin Concerto "Red Violin", Phantasmagoria / Ludwig, Falletta, Buffalo PO
CORIGLIANO Violin Concerto, “The Red Violin 1.” Phantasmagoria: Suite from The Ghosts of Versailles • JoAnn Falletta, cond; Buffalo Phil O; 1 Michael Ludwig (vn) • NAXOS 8559671 (61:02)
If John Corigliano (b. 1938) isn’t already one of the deans of American music, he should be. His awards and prizes are of the extra-special variety: an Academy Award for his score to the film The Red Violin , a Pulitzer Prize for his Symphony No. 2, and a Grammy Award for Best Classical Contemporary Composition, Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan , and that’s just to name three.
Likewise, if there were an official category for dean of American conductors, JoAnn Falletta would surely deserve election to it. Her work with the Buffalo Philharmonic and the Virginia Symphony orchestras has been transformative for both of those institutions, and her recordings with those two ensembles as well as many others both here and abroad for Naxos, Albany, Koch, and other labels have in several cases been groundbreaking in terms of repertoire and ear-opening in terms of performance.
If you’ve never seen the 1998 Canadian film The Red Violin , written by Don McKellar and François Girard and directed by Girard, you really should rent or buy it on DVD. Three years in the making, it’s a moving story inspired by a Stradivarius violin, the “Red Mendelssohn” of 1721, in which the violin is the main character. Its fate is followed from country to country, continent to continent, and century to century over a period of 300 years as it changes owners and falls into the hands of one after another, some who cherish it for the right reasons—their love of music—others who covet it for the wrong reasons—its monetary value—and still others who neglect and abuse it. The script’s writers were intent on insuring historical accuracy and meticulousness of detail.
John Corigliano composed the score, which turned out to be a masterpiece in its own right. Basing his score on a chaconne chord sequence, which represents the idea of recurrent episodes that intersect and in the end come together, in counterpoint to a theme representing Anna, the violin maker’s doomed wife, Corigliano wrote a series of études for violin, each in a style appropriate to its period. The violinist on the soundtrack is Joshua Bell.
Then, in 1997, with work on the score already completed while shooting on the film continued, Corigliano composed a new, 17-minute piece he called The Red Violin: Chaconne for Violin and Orchestra based on the chaconne progression he’d written for the film. This time Bell appeared in the flesh to give the world premiere performance of the Chaconne with Robert Spano conducting the San Francisco Symphony in the fall of that year. Bell subsequently recorded the work in London with Esa-Pekka Salonen leading the Philharmonia Orchestra. The piece has turned out to be quite popular, being taken up on record by a number of other violinists, including Chloë Hanslip with Leonard Slatkin and the Royal Philharmonic, and in a transcription for violin and piano by Maria Bachmann with Jon Kilbonoff, and Ida Bieler with Nina Tichman.
But Corigliano wasn’t done with his Chaconne. Not wishing it to remain a stand-alone piece like Chausson’s Poème , Ravel’s Tzigane , or Beethoven’s Romances, he decided to write three new movements, using the Chaconne as the first movement of a substantive, nearly 40-minute-long violin concerto. And that is what we have here on this disc. It too, and once again by Bell, was previously recorded, this time in 2006 with Marin Alsop directing the Baltimore Symphony, which gets us fairly close to home with this new recording by Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic with violinist Michael Ludwig.
Perhaps it should be mentioned that there was to be yet another spinoff from Corigliano’s Chaconne, a theme and variations for solo violin, titled The Red Violin Caprices . Composers since time immemorial have been known to milk a good tune, but it may be time for Corigliano to let it go, lest he be pegged as “John the Red.” There’s no question but that with the “Red Violin” Concerto, Corigliano has made a significant contribution to the 20th-century violin concerto repertoire. He is quoted as saying that he wanted to write a work in the grand romantic tradition that his father, John Sr., longtime concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic, would have loved to play.
Michael Ludwig has teamed up for a couple of winning discs with JoAnn Falletta before. In Fanfare 32:1, I raved about their recording of Dohnányi’s violin concertos on Naxos with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra; and two issues earlier (31:5) in a feature interview with Falletta I practically drooled over Ludwig’s live performance of Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy with the Virginia Symphony Orchestra on a Hampton Road CD. At the time, Strad magazine said of Ludwig that he possesses “effortless, envy-provoking technique … sweet tone, brilliant expression, and grand style.” This Corigliano program, recorded a year later in 2008, confirms previous critical opinion. The violin Ludwig plays, neither a Strad nor varnished with blood, is an 18th-century Lorenzo Storioni, from which the violinist draws a tone that is both liquid and penetrating. One could argue that Corigliano’s concerto is owned by Bell, for he has been more closely associated with it and more directly involved with the composer than Ludwig, or, for that matter, anyone else. Still, much as I appreciate Bell’s playing in general, I feel there are moments in this piece where he applies the schmaltz a little too thickly. Ludwig resists that temptation, and I think the concerto emerges the better for it.
From the opening of Corigliano’s Phantasmagoria , a suite extracted from the composer’s largely successful opera The Ghosts of Versailles , you’d never guess that this creepy, slithery music sets the stage for what is essentially a “comedy.” The plot, which is too involved and complex to elaborate on here, is a spoof on the afterlife of the royals deposed by the French Revolution. Marie Antoinette, royally roiled over having lost her head, summons the spirit of Beaumarchais, whereupon what ensues is a play within a play that commingles elements of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro with theater of the absurd. The musical score is a send-up of the world of opera in general, with easily recognizable parodies of just about every opera from Rossini to Wagner.
As a work detached from its literary references and stage setting, Phantasmagoria becomes a virtuoso showpiece for orchestra. The piece seems to divide into two approximately equal halves. Much of the first half is busy, bustling, noisy, and nutty; the second half, from 13:03 to the end, is calmer, more lyrical, and takes on the feeling of fate accepted, which it is in the opera as Marie is beheaded a second time and reunited with Beaumarchais in Paradise.
Naxos is not claiming a recording premiere for Phantasmagoria , which is wise, for though no other versions are currently listed at ArkivMusic, there is another one on Ondine with the Tampere Philharmonic led by Eri Klas conducting, which I found at cduniverse. I haven’t heard it, but I don’t have to in order to tell you that JoAnn Falletta with her Buffalo Philharmonic forces has once again hit the jackpot, both with Phantasmagoria and especially with the Violin Concerto, which, as played by Ludwig, deserves at least equal billing beside Bell. Strongly recommended.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Mining your back catalogue for material for new works has a long and illustrious history. Every composer from Bach to Elgar has quarried their earlier works to great effect. But I would speculate that for John Corigliano this revisiting seems to engage a greater emotional function than simply exploiting usable music. The act of homage extends to the motivation behind the work. So, although musically very different the two works presented here are able to be seen as acts of homage and remembrance on multiple levels. That this seems to be a pervasive trait, almost imperative, in Corigliano’s work is borne out by his remarkable Symphony No.1 in part subtitled ‘Of Rage and Remembrance’ and his beautiful early choral setting of Dylan Thomas Fern Hill which is a nostalgic paean to childhood.
Neither work on this disc is receiving a first recording and I have not heard any of the competing versions – with a single exception which I will come to later. The disc opens with the extended suite Phantasmagoria. This can bee seen as a kind of double-level ‘revisit’. The musical material is drawn from Corigliano’s opera The Ghosts of Versailles written in 2000. A key to the structure of the opera is its simultaneous functioning on three levels of reality involving historical characters from 18 th Century France, literary/operatic characters from the same period, and the gory reality of the French Revolution. Corigliano delights in weaving into the musical texture fractured musical quotes identifying characters from Mozart and Rossini operas and apparently even a Wagnerian theme too. Not having seen the opera it is hard to know how the spirit of the stage-work has been carried over into the orchestral suite. John Corigliano contributes the very interesting liner-notes and he points out the musical sources from the opera for the various sections of the suite. However, to the listener new to the work such as myself, it is by definition impossible to recognise themes in that way. Instead you have an impression of the work as a whole. Certainly, the fragmentary, kaleidoscopic, hallucinatory quality of the music does create a wonderfully atmospheric sense of colliding realities. The use of very specific melodic ‘hooks’ is always somewhat controversial – as a listener you hear the sign but are left speculating over its meaning. Perhaps in the staged opera they accompany one of the levels of reality mentioned earlier so their function is motivic. Here in the suite one admires the way they are woven into the musical fabric without quite knowing why! Corigliano writes virtuosic and brilliantly complex passages but in both works I feel his real musical strengths lie in his lyrical reflective writing. The ethereal gently phasing opening is beautiful in its other-worldly mystery. I’m not over enamoured of the technical aspect of the recording as a whole. Not that it is in any way bad but simply short on atmosphere for a disc where that quality defines most of the music. Too often I find I am hearing individual instrumental lines rather than a resultant orchestral colour which is surely as the composer intended. As a guide to how Corigliano achieves his orchestral effects this is very helpful but it makes it hard for the players to create as much of a magical mood as this music contains. I do not recognise the names of the producer/editor and engineer here as Naxos ‘regulars’. Clearly they have opted for an up-close and personal style; personally I prefer the minimalist ‘best seat in the stalls’ approach.
My observations about this carry forward into the concerto. Corigliano has revisited his score for the film ‘The Red Violin’ on numerous occasions. The completist collector can add to the original soundtrack, The Red Violin: Chaconne for Violin and Orchestra; The Red Violin – Suite for Violin and Orchestra; The Red Violin Caprices for Solo Violin; and the Concerto for Violin & Orchestra ‘The Red Violin’ which is recorded here. The latter includes the previously mentioned Chaconne as its first and longest movement. Clearly something about the music, or topic or associations here fascinates Corigliano. He writes in the liner about memories – we’re on that remembrance path again – of hearing his father John Corigliano Snr, in his capacity as famed leader/concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic, practising concertos at home. He movingly writes of his hope to write a “piece my father would love to play”. Well, it’s a very fine work indeed and one I am sure the elder Corigliano would relish tackling even if I suspect he would raise the occasional eyebrow at the ferocity and complexity of the solo writing. The expansion of the opening Chaconne into a four movement full-blown concerto is an exercise in simple pragmatism. The stand-alone movement, at seventeen minutes requiring a large orchestra and significant rehearsal, is commercially hard to programme; a thirty-nine minute concerto much easier. Not just in length this is by far the more important and weightier work on the disc. The suite is just that – an interesting chip off a bigger block. The concerto revisits earlier material but with dramatically more significant musical results.
The soloist here is Buffalo Philharmonic’s own concertmaster – again you can’t help but think that Corigliano Snr. Would have approved – Michael Ludwig. He made a very powerful impression with his recording of the two Dohnanyi Violin Concertos on Naxos again conducted by JoAnn Falletta. That they have a good rapport is clear here with a performance full of fire and passion. As far as the Chaconne is concerned Naxos comes into competition with themselves. Chloe Hanslip recorded this as a companion to the Adams Violin Concerto conducted by Leonard Slatkin and the RPO. On an already stunning disc the Chaconne is the standout performance and good though Ludwig and Falletta are Hanslip and Slatkin are finer. In part this is again due to the recording. Try the very opening of the work – track 2. In Buffalo, Ludwig’s violin is close and then the woodwinds rising skirls do not flow together and mingle with the harp and percussion – each line remains resolutely independent. Although it does not say as much I am sure I heard the odd extraneous audience noise so I assume this ‘live’ recording accounts for the close-miked nature of the sound; some players really are sitting in your lap particularly when listened to on headphones. Conversely the violin sections sound relatively recessed although this might be a kind of aural illusion caused by the proximity of the wind and brass. Hanslip and Slatkin in the hands of master producer Tim Handley and engineer Mike Hatch recorded at Abbey Road Studio 1 – create far more instant atmosphere yet later in the movement percussion and brass blaze with glorious body and power. It’s not that the Buffalo engineering is bad – not at all – the other version is simply better. And at the very highest level the same has to be said of Ludwig. He plays the work throughout extremely well – it is only when a direct side by side comparison with Hanslip is made is that you realise she has that tiny virtuosic edge that allows her playing to have an extra degree of lyrical freedom and ease. I come back to my instinctive sense that it is this quasi-vocal lyricism that lies at the heart of Corigliano’s music – try from around 3:30 into the opening movement, to my ear Hanslip is gentler, sweeter, more nostalgic – a wonderful passage. The second movement Pianissimo Scherzo suffers most from the unatmospheric recording. In the liner Corigliano writes that “the dynamics are soft, but the action are wild and colourful”. Listened to at the same levels as the first movement little of the playing registers as truly quiet instead the orchestration comes across as rather heavy. In this performance this was the movement that made the least impression. The third movement Andante Flautando is simply gorgeous from beginning to end – romantic music in modern guise. There is real skill in the way Corigliano has grafted onto the totally viable first movement three further movements that in no way feel like afterthoughts or addenda. The fourth movement Accelerando Finale balances the Chaconne well again using multi-layered instrumental groups phasing in and out with each other to create really exciting orchestral timbres. Throughout the concerto Ludwig dispatches the many furious passages of running 16 th notes / semiquavers with energetic ease – this is where he is at his best. Corigliano helps bind the work together by bringing back the chordal progression of the chaconne towards the end – am I alone in hearing echoes of the Peter Grimes’ Passacaglia here?
The whole concerto as well as the original soundtrack has been recorded by Joshua Bell but I have not heard them. The Buffalo Philharmonic plays throughout with confident assurance under JoAnn Falletta’s baton. Assuming these are live performances ensemble and accuracy in these highly complex scores is excellent. In the spirit of even-handed fairness I should say I have read reviews of this disc elsewhere which make a point of praising the engineering reckoning it to be of award-winning standard. I cannot share that view but as with so many aspects of music; it is all a matter of taste. The Concerto is a very impressive work and one written with a great deal of care and love by John Corigliano – a wonderful tribute to his father. There seems to be a run of very fine contemporary violin concertos at the moment – I’m thinking here especially of the one by Matthew Hindson that partners on disc the Red Violin Suite performed by Lara St. John and another by Tommie Haglund called Hymns to the Night which in a neat piece of symmetry was first performed on the violin which is the actual red violin. The Haglund concerto in particular is a major work of enormous power – there is a recording I have yet to hear. This Corigliano Concerto is right up there and hopefully its appearance on the Naxos with the benefits of distribution and affordability that brings will ensure many more music-lovers will get to hear this powerful and compelling work.
-- Nick Barnard, MusicWeb International
Catalog Number: 8559671
Composer: John Corigliano
Conductor: JoAnn Falletta
Orchestra/Ensemble: Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra
Performer: Michael Ludwig