CORIGLIANO: Winging It -- Improvisations for piano. Chiaroscuro for 2 pianos.* Fantasia on an Ostinato. Kaleidoscope.* Etude Fantasy.
Ursula Oppens (piano), *Jerome Lowenthal (second piano).
Cedille Records CDR 90000 123 TT: 59:30.
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Almost pointless. I have never, ever understood why people keep comparing John Corigliano to Samuel Barber. After all, Barber is a great composer, Corigliano not so much. His catalogue contains a lot of Styrofoam, as this CD well demonstrates.

I can't say much about Winging It, other than it sounds like improvisation, in the sense that it's filled with first thoughts, rather than best thoughts. Fantasia on an Ostinato, written for the Van Cliburn Competition, varies with the player, to the extent that it has run (in the Competition itself) anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes. Corigliano wrote it to test not the virtuosity, but the musicianship of the players. Oppens clocks in at around 11 minutes. Corigliano mentions the influence of Minimalism, and the piece does strike me as pretty minimal, nattering on at length for no compelling reason. The Etude Fantasy is a well-crafted bore, with all sorts of inter-movement motific references and without one genuinely memorable idea. Five minutes after you hear it, you forget it.

That leaves Kaleidoscope for two pianos, a Corigliano hit of sorts. He wrote it early in his career, and I do see why people made such a fuss over him back then. It's lively, interesting melodically (although not especially individual). Years later, Corigliano received a commission for another two-piano work. He initially balked, feeling that he had said everything he had wanted to say in Kaleidoscope, and he didn't really see the point of a second piano. He then began to think in terms of color and hit on the idea of tuning the pianos a quarter-tone apart (the pitch between C and C#, for example -- the pitch in the crack between the piano keys). Each piano would be in tune relative to itself, but not to its partner. Ives did this decades before, but Corigliano has his own take on the device. Indeed, he uses it beautifully (and pretty sparingly). The effect is a kind of momentary aural blur that resolves itself, usually "upwards." I like this piece best by far.

I admire Ursula Oppens's devotion to contemporary music. I'm less thrilled with her playing, which tends to engender no emotion in me whatsoever. My two favorite items on the CD are the two duo-piano pieces, and the addition of Jerome Lowenthal may have something to do with it. I do know that in both cases, the music comes alive.

S.G.S. (August 2011)