It is interesting, at a time when we are seeing compositions written about, dedicated to, and in memory of those lost in the September 11th terrorist attacks and the subsequent reactions, to go back to works written about WWI, WWII, and other wars that inspired so many great works. This CD of John Corigliano's Symphony No. 1, is a personal reaction to the loss of friends and family to the AIDS epidemic, during a time, a decade or two ago, when AIDS was a worldwide headline and crisis (It still is today, really). The image of the AIDS quilt on the cover of the CD brings back many of the feelings the nation had at that time. This highly personal and intense symphony spurned a 12-minute cantata based on the symphony's 3rd movement, which vocalizes with words, the powerful impact of the loss of life to AIDS.
Each movement of the 40-minute Symphony No. 1, has a personal reference to someone Corigliano has lost to AIDS. The opening movement is subtitled Of Rage and Remembrance, and the rage can be seen on page 1 with a score marking of "ferocious". Aleatoric elements give a fearful tone: playing with string vibratos, odd wind rhythms, brass slidings, and percussion clatterings. The Rage section also has instrumental instructions such as hysterical and nasty, which lead into the cacophonous poundings. The middle section has long sustained strings, but in the distance, is an off-stage piano playing Issac Albeniz's tango, a favorite piece of one of Corigliano's pianist friends. The dissonant strings continue the minds' rage (almost creepily) while the remembrance in a fog is represented in the tonal and major-mode piano work. The opening hysteric poundings and aleatoric elements return, but all ends with the distant piano, as if in a distant memory. The second movement is a tarantella, an Italian dance form, taken from a set of piano pieces. The tarantella was dedicated to a friend who eventually succumbed to the AIDS virus. A bouncy and tuneful theme is varied amongst more aleatoric extra-musical devices, like string and brass glissandi and constant speeding and slowing of the dance tempi, often give way to freneticism. The horrific and often grotesque dance is attributed to his friends' madness as a direct result of the disease. The third movement's melody, subtitled Giulio's Song, was taken from a tape Corigliano was reviewing of he and his friend, Giulio Sorrentino, improvising at college in 1962. Giulio also died of AIDS, and the cello, he was an amateur cellist, represents his friend. With long sustained chords, Corigliano adds soloists, and printed in the score, remembers other friends who have died from AIDS with each solo entrance. Eventually the pounding and throbbing from the first movement, reprised in the second movement, finds its way here too. The short fourth movement epilogue is announced by sustained falling brass clusters and a reprise of the Albeniz piano solo, cello solo, and other previous themes, ending in the finally silenced cello solo. Scored for large orchestra, a large battery of percussion (including anvil, flexatone, whistle, whip, and ratchet) a string section including mandolins, the music is intense, often dissonant mixed with polytonality, and exhibiting great tunefulness with energetic rhythmical themes, not to mention many "chance" techniques. The music is highly personal and intense.
The accompanying 12-minute cantata, scored for low strings, chorus, solo mezzo, chimes, and timpani, is entitled Of Rage and Remembrance and opens with an impassioned mezzo solo, a vivid textual depiction of Corigliano's feelings in the symphony. Various soloists recall Corigliano's friends who died and were marked in the symphony's score of the 3rd movement. The chorus, in musical aleatory, recall those they personally lost to AIDS through chanting; and in a haunting ending, a lone boy soprano quotes Psalm 23 in Hebrew. Perhaps even more moving than the actual symphonic movement, Of Rage and Remembrance is a deeply-felt addition to the disk.
Leonard Slatkin and the National Symphony Orchestra out of Washington DC with various Washington choruses and soloists, give sincere and electric performances. Sonically and overall, this RCA disk surpasses the earlier world premier on Erato with the Chicago Symphony under Barenboim with Slatkin's extroverted style. Even though this work was written in the late 1980's and first performed in the early 1990's, the subject and intense personal connection holds up. Gritty and sentimental, the symphony is a masterpiece.