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Winging It: Piano Music of John Corigliano
Corigliano: Winging It: Improvisations for piano; Chiaroscuro; Fantasia on an Ostinato; Kaleidoscope; Etude Fantasy.
Ursula Oppens, piano; Jerome Lowenthal, second piano in Kaleidoscope and Chiaroscuro

Review By Joe Milicia


  The indefatigable and brilliant Ursula Oppens brings together all of the solo piano works to date — and, ably partnered by Jerome Lowenthal, the duo piano works too — of John Corigliano, covering a remarkable 50-year span. Good sound and the composer's own helpful program notes make this Cedille release a very attractive package.

The earliest work on the program is Kaleidoscope for Two Pianos, written when the composer was an undergraduate at Columbia University (class of 1959). It's a lively six-minute piece, with a lyrical middle section very reminiscent of Leonard Bernstein. The more formidable Etude Fantasy of 1976 is a kind of suite of five etudes with complexly interrelated material, played without pause. Its extremely varied moods (craggy to contemplative) and Oppens' intense performance make it a highlight of the disc.

The "ostinato" of the 1976 Fantasia on an Ostinato is the hypnotic rhythm and harmonies of the second movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. The piece was written for students in the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition to perform, and it contains some options in the central portions that allow it to be anywhere from 7 to 20 minutes in length. (Oppens takes 11½.) I confess to finding this work less engaging than the rest of the music on the CD.

Chiaroscuro (1997) features two pianos tuned a quarter tone apart, creating a blurry, eerie sound that isn't as harshly clashing as you might think. In this work, a thunderous but brief opening section ("Light") leads to a dreamy (the composer's word) slow section ("Shadows") and an agitated finale ("Strobe") that quotes a Bach chorale during a calm middle passage and brings it back for the agitated close. The most recent work, Winging It (2008), is a suite of three pieces that began as free improvisations and got transcribed and revised for Oppens (who premiered the work) in various complicated ways that Corligiano's program notes explain. The steps included using a MIDI computer program and adjusting for the composer's own inadequate pianism.

Oppens' and Lowenthal's skills and commitment to the music are impressive throughout, and Cedille captures even the "biggest" sonorities of the two pianos without distortion. The arrangement of the program is effective, starting off with the newest work and finishing with the exciting Etude Fantasy.





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