Mr. Tambourine Man, John Corigliano's 35-minute song cycle for amplified soprano and orchestra, had a unique genesis. Corigliano took texts from songs by Bob Dylan, and treated them purely as poetry, without using or referring to Dylan's music. He professes not to even know the Dylan originals, but frankly, it's a little hard to believe that anyone who didn't spend the 1960s in an isolation chamber could have avoided hearing "Blowin' in the Wind" somewhere along the line. Corigliano's experiment pays off because the texts are indeed terrific, and his thoughtful and evocative settings are persuasive interpretations of Dylan's lyrics. His music makes no reference to the folk tradition in which Dylan writes. These are clearly art songs with an entirely different set of aesthetic parameters, but particularly in the more reflective movements, Corigliano's settings have a haunting melancholy that evokes a sensibility of American populism not too far from Dylan's in its depth of feeling and emotional impact. He gives "Forever Young" a strophic setting that's wonderfully melodically memorable; its simplicity and transparency make it achingly poignant. There's a homespun Ivesian flavor to Corigliano's wistful and mysterious setting of "Clothes Line." "Blowin' in the Wind," perhaps the hardest sell because Dylan's original is so distinctive, succeeds because it brings a new twist to the text; it quietly begins with a sense of smoldering anger and grows in intensity as the cumulative power of the unanswerable questions builds, until it erupts in an outcry of full-blown rage before subsiding into resigned sadness. Hila Plitmann's remarkably pure and expressive voice and emotionally direct and unmannered performance make her the ideal interpreter for this material. This is certainly one of the strongest new vocal compositions and extraordinary performances to appear on CD in a while.
The CD also includes Three Hallucinations, a suite the composer made from his score for the 1980 Ken Russell film Altered States. The eclectic, skittish music is in fact hallucinatory, full of eccentric juxtapositions, distorted and distended musical gestures, and appropriately random weirdness. Corigliano is a fabulous orchestrator, and his colorful score, although it's definitely "modern music," is approachable and audience-friendly, especially with the subject matter kept in mind. JoAnn Falletta leads the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra in accomplished performances that span the technical and expressive spectrum, from the delicacy and finesse of the Dylan songs to the over-the-top wildness of Three Hallucinations. Naxos' sound is immaculate, with great clarity and balance, as well as a convincing sense of depth.