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The taut, fiercely sustained single note that opens his First Symphony arose, according to John Corigliano, from an image of “a fist traveling slowly through concrete, crushing everything until it explodes at the end.” The National Symphony Orchestra’s first release under Leonard Slatkin brilliantly registers both the unremitting intensity of such moments and the larger structure that gives this music its coherence. Slatkin’s choice to record Corigliano’s symphonic expression of anger and loss in the face of the AIDS epidemic, rather than yet another version of a comfortable classic, carries the weight and conviction of a manifesto. Corigliano, who is otherwise known for such works as his opera The Ghosts of Versailles and his score for the film Altered States, conceived of this symphony as an aural counterpart to the AIDS Quilt and specifically commemorates close friends within each movement. Like the Quilt, his work interweaves the personal with the universal, possessing a scope that is alternately epic and intimate but never lacking in immediacy. Terrifying yawps of accelerating brass yield to a vaguely recalled, gauzelike melody in slow motion. A surging threnody sustained by cellos follows the hallucinatory and manic whirligig of a fevered tarantella. These textures, heard through the course of the symphony’s progress, rely on elaborate and remarkable orchestration (expanded to include such elements as police whistle, whip, temple blocs, and chimes) matched by the NSO’s surefire virtuosity throughout. Above all, what makes this performance—taken from live concerts from last year—supersede the original recording made by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Daniel Barenboim in 1990 are the sense of urgency and masterful deployment of contrasts Slatkin brings to it. The disc also includes the premiere recording of an eloquent and dark-hued choral work, Of Rage and Remembrance, based on material from the symphony’s third movement. Both works integrate the range of emotions encompassed by the title of the choral piece, but neither offers an easy catharsis.

—Thomas May