Corigliano Symphony No 2; (The) Mannheim Rocket
For what it’s worth, John Corigliano won the Pulitzer Prize for his Second Symphony in 2001. It wasn’t an entirely original piece, being a reworking (albeit pretty radical) of his 1996 String Quartet for the then-disbanding Cleveland Quartet. By his own admission Corigliano had resolved never to write a symphony. And then there were two. Circumstances prevailed. With the First Symphony circumstances overwhelmed him: the AIDS epidemic. His subject was loss, as in death. With the Second it was loss, as in farewell.
Corigliano (in keeping with so many Americans) is an easy communicator. His sense of drama and his nose for atmosphere both help – it’s no accident that he’s made his mark on film (Altered States, The Red Violin). The scherzo of the Second Symphony wields malevolent chords with all the zeal of a slasher movie (echoes of Herrmann’s Psycho) but equally he’ll wrong-foot your expectations with a trio redolent of something at once ancient and reverential.
Corigliano instinctively knows how to get an audience ‘on side’. The whispering Prelude which opens the work is a sound universe from which emerges a chordal fragment (consonant like a forgotten hymn) which immediately gives us our bearing and places us spiritually right at the centre of things. His ‘anti-contrapuntal’ out-of-sync Fugue effects a weird sense of smudging without loss of clarity. You don’t know how he does it but you’re intrigued that he did. He blinds you with the magic not the science.
The Second Symphony is essentially a long goodbye. The last movement, built as it is over a strange oscillating figure uncannily suggestive of an emergency vehicle siren, seems to put more and more distance between you and the music. The strings of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra keep it gripping.
And then we’re up, up, and away on Corigliano’s Mannheim Rocket. This 10-minute crowd-pleaser takes the 18th-century concept of a rising scale or arpeggio propelled faster, louder and higher into space, and turns it into something which might easily have emanated from the imagination of Baron Munchausen and found favour with Gerard Hoffnung. This rocket-propelled wedding-cake climbs through 200 years of German music: Stamitz, Brahms, Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel, Wagner’s Valkyries… and, more contentiously, the Mastersingers. But not even their inflated egos can keep the ship airborne. What goes up… Conductor John Storgårds and the orchestra make the most of the meeting with terra firma.