A Dylan Thomas Trilogy constitutes the summation of composer John Corigliano's lifelong fascination with the work of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. It incorporates three existing Thomas settings, Fern Hill (1960) -- an early acknowledged entry for Corigliano and one of his best-known choral pieces -- and the orchestral songs Poem in October (1969) and Poem on His Birthday (1976). Corigliano first cobbled together the three into a work for the Washington National Cathedral in 1976, but remained unhappy with the result, returning to it in 1999 for the finishing off, where he shuffled the order of the pieces and replaced what had been short, nebulous transitional material in 1976 with significant and fully developed new sections. Naxos' John Corigliano: A Dylan Thomas Trilogy features Corigliano's longtime champion Leonard Slatkin leading the Nashville Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in this major cycle, which in the revised version has ballooned to over an hour in length and could easily constitute an evening's entertainment on its own.
Thomas Allen serves both as baritone soloist and as narrator, and does a splendid job in the role, not only singing but also attempting to channel the spirit of Thomas into his performance, capturing the urgency and frustration that typify the poet. There are other aspects of this project, nevertheless, that seem less than satisfying; while all the voices here are fore grounded and timpani rumble with earthshaking authority, the middle part of the orchestral spectrum seems only weakly represented in Naxos' recording. In some spots, Corigliano's style and Thomas' verse seem to be at odds, though this is not out of keeping with other composers who have set his work. While Thomas' words may often be emotional, bitter and angry at the world, the lyrical clarity of his verse is accessible in a general way and he is never out of touch with the rhythm of the line. Even Stravinsky seized on the bitterness and rage inherent in his setting, entitled In Memoriam Dylan Thomas, of "Do not go gentle into that good night." Corigliano is largely dramatic in his realization of Thomas and seldom lyric, although Fern Hill is certainly an exception, and a good one. Given its strong orientation toward the dramatic, one gets the impression that A Dylan Thomas Trilogy would be more effective in a live concert setting than on a recording. However, given the lack of meat in the center of the audio perspective here, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that A Dylan Thomas Trilogy would be more effective in a live performance than on this recording.