Winging It: Piano Music Of John Corigliano / Oppens, Lowenthal

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John Corigliano is such an accomplished orchestrator that you might be surprised at how well his piano music sounds. The truth is, he simply has...

John Corigliano is such an accomplished orchestrator that you might be surprised at how well his piano music sounds. The truth is, he simply has a gift for finding brilliant sonorities no matter what instrument he happens to be writing for. He uses the full range of the piano, often turning to extremes of register, but always to good musical and expressive purpose. The works here are highly varied in style and conception, but are invariably enjoyable.

Winging It, subtitled "Improvisations for Piano", is exactly what the name implies: three improvisations captured in real time and then subsequently notated. Chiaroscuro requires two pianos tuned a quarter-tone apart, but it never sounds gratuitously dissonant--there's that feeling for sonority again. Fantasia on an Ostinato, based on the famous Allegretto of Beethoven's Seventh, is one of Corigliano's best-known pieces. Kaleidoscope, also for two pianos, is an early jeu d'esprit, while the Etude Fantasy never lets the didactic element get in the way of musical enjoyment.

The performances here are pretty stupendous. Ursula Oppens takes all the solos, and she's joined by Jerome Lowenthal in the duo pieces. Her playing is spirited, subtle, colorful, and wholly winning. She conveys the freedom of the improvisations in Winging It and chooses an excellent timing for the optional repetitions in the Fantasia on an Ostinato (it lasts a bit more than 11 minutes). In Chiaroscuro, careful attention to balance and dynamics reveals the wonderful colors of this evocative score. The beautifully calibrated engineering, brilliant but never harsh or brittle, helps immeasurably. A disc to treasure.

--David Hurwitz,


Though there is not a lot of piano music by the American composer John Corigliano, his music that does exist for the instrument is varied and high in quality. All of the compositions here—written over the course of some 50 years, almost one per decade—each inhabits its own sound world. The earliest piece, Kaleidoscope (1959), is a two-piano work from Corigliano’s student days. It is a short work filled with the high-energy writing of a young composer. The next composition, the Etude Fantasy (1976), is a virtuosic tour de force . It is made up of five etudes, each dedicated to a different compositional device or technical aspect of performance—titled “For the Left Hand Alone,” “Legato,” “Fifths to Thirds,” “Ornaments,” and “Melody”—which are woven into a continuous fantasy. It is at times mysterious and foreboding, at others downright brutal. It shows off Corigliano’s wonderful sense of color and sonority and his overall sense of the dramatic in terms of building a larger work out of smaller ones. It is a wonderful composition that should be heard and programmed more often than it is. One of Corigliano’s more popular works, the Fantasia on an Ostinato (1985), was written for the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. In it Corigliano went for something a bit different, rejecting the idea of a technical showpiece, deciding rather to test the musical imagination and force the interpreters to create rather than re-create, as he describes it. It is his only self-proclaimed experiment in Minimalist techniques; in its original setting at the competition, the various performances ran from an overall timing of seven to more than 20 minutes. Oppens seems to find a time right in the middle (11:26), which to my ears works just about perfectly. Chiaroscuro (1997) is composed of three movements for two pianos tuned one quarter-tone apart. Before writing it, Corigliano struggled with the reasoning behind writing another work for this medium, finding his inspiration finally from a deadline for a commission for the Murray Dranoff International Two Piano Competition. By pre-tuning the instruments he felt that he could draw out the even more subtle and intense intervals between the standard ones. He has here come up with a highly enjoyable and easily listenable work. The final and latest composition, Winging It (2008), was a project in improvisation and transcription. Each of the three works (labeled just by the date he played and recorded them) started off as an improvisation. As the transcription took place, the pieces were altered slightly before reaching their current states. Throughout the recital Oppens (and her partner Lowenthal in the two-piano works) show off their flair for this music with readings of high energy, nuance, and subtlety. Corigliano could not ask for better advocates. Perhaps this fabulous recital will inspire the performance of more of this music. We could ask for nothing more.

FANFARE: Scott Noriega

Product Description:

  • Release Date: May 31, 2011

  • UPC: 735131912327

  • Catalog Number: CDR 123

  • Label: Cedille

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Composer: John Corigliano

  • Performer: Jerome Lowenthal, Ursula Oppens