The trilogy was 40 years in the making. "Fern Hill" is one of Corigliano's earliest scores, dating from 1960-61; the next two settings followed in 1969 and 1976. All three were initially intended as separate pieces, though he realised during the composition of the last that he had been engaged on a single epic journey. Last year he returned to the trilogy and found that it didn't cohere. So back he went to Thomas and lifted the "Author's Prologue" to the Collected Poems as a frame.
Now the stylistic disparity made sense. When he first set Thomas in 1960, Corigliano was in thrall to the most lyrical of all American composers, Samuel Barber, and "Fern Hill" is steeped in Barber's lazy, sunny-evening harmonies and warm orchestration, even down to the ubiquitous solo oboe.
Corigliano folds that early setting into his 1998 score rather as his friend Leonard Bernstein's late opera A Quiet Place subsumed his 1952 one-acter Trouble in Tahiti, though with happier results: the summer idyll becomes light remembered in darkness. Corigliano makes a virtue of the different sound worlds: after the anguished prologue, with baritone, full orchestra and chorus, the focus is suddenly reduced to boy treble, chamber orchestra and semi-chorus, enhanced by a sharp circumscription of the Festival Hall lighting.
Corigliano continues the dramatic conceit: in the central section the 30-year-old Thomas is sung by a tenor, supported by the main chorus and fuller textures; while the baritone takes the final text, where the poet "sings towards anguish" and the full forces are let off the leash, including a wild orchestral chase as "The rippled seals streak down to kill".
The performance was heroic: Leonard Slatkin, chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra from October next year, knew every detail of the score - as well he might: it is dedicated to him, and he gave the first performance in Washington in March (this was its first European outing). The soloists were outstanding, particularly the imperious baritone of William Dazeley, piercing eyes and imploring gesture adding to the impact of his passionate declamation; John Daszak's lyrical tenor provided pointed contrast; and though the treble, Patrick Burrows, third in a line of musical brothers, is barely in long trousers, he is already an unflappable pro. The BBC players and singers put their limbs and lungs into it, energising the full 90 minutes.
A Dylan Thomas Trilogy is not profoundly original: the Barber influence is unsurprising given Corigliano's youth at the time of "Fern Hill", and I noticed a strong whiff of Mahler 8 in the choral writing of the closing pages. But it is sincere, effective and moving, and that is good enough.
Martin AndersonReuse content