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Ned ROREM (b. 1923)
Pilgrims (1958) [7:14] *
Flute Concerto (2002) [31:21] *
Violin Concerto (1985) [24:07]
Philippe Quint (violin)
Jeffrey Khaner (flute)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Josť Serebrier
rec. 16-17 June 2005, Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, UK. DDD
* world premiere recording
NAXOS 8.559278 [62:42]

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Pilgrims (1958) is a short work for string orchestra receiving its world premiere recording here. The title refers to a book about the suicide of a schizoid adolescent and the music is described by Ned Rorem as "less programmatic than a mood of remembrance". In length and instrumentation Pilgrims could be compared with Samuel Barber's much-loved Adagio for Strings. However Barber sustains and culminates his concrete melody whilst Rorem's melody diffuses, shifting and sometimes interrupted. I kept thinking of an empty house with living memories, astringent chords indicating that not all are happy, drifting within its rooms. The work stops with a brief arching shiver.

A listener who did not know who wrote this flute concerto (2002) would quickly identify a twentieth/twenty-first century composer with a lyrical gift. A clue pointing to Ned Rorem is the fluteís steady winding theme opening the gorgeous second movement Leaving-Travelling-Hoping which mirrors the even falling and/or spiralling phrasing in many of his songs, such as Clouds, The Sowers, That Shadow My Likeness, Ferry Me Across the Water. Indeed the singing quality throughout is what distinguishes this warm, melodic concerto.

Rorem's flute concerto opens with a melody above blows from the timpani. Shades of the last movement of Mahler 10? The booklet informs us the ffffff seven-note clusters perhaps mean Fate. This 'leitmotif' recurs. Throughout I was aware of a 'settling', not only through the overarching structure from loud opening to final repose but from the downward floating of many phrases. All movements end quietly.

Jeffrey Khaner is the concerto's dedicatee and his playing is stunning, with wide dynamic range and colour. There's nothing outwardly flashy in Rorem's writing and I liked the way Khaner floats long lines so naturally. But sample the The Stone Tower or the brief False Waltz if you want to hear dazzling pyrotechnics. Wow!

Other highlights for the flute include rapidly rising runs in the first movement, like bubbles tearing to the surface, and the beautiful interplay with other woodwind, glancing light off each other. False waltz is instantly likable and reminiscent of Prokofievís waltz suites. The Resume and Prayer recalls themes from all previous movements, ending with repose.

The Naxos recording of the flute concerto is a world premiere but the violin concerto (1985) comes up against formidable competition from Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic on Deutsche Grammophon where the orchestra has more presence. For example, Kremer is better covered by the New York Philharmonic's dark grey storm clouds, which approach so inexorably in Toccata-Chaconne. Compare the added frisson Bernstein brings to this movement and the way he expresses the culminating violence at its centre as Kremer, responding savagely, tears into Rorem's solo writing.

As recorded, it's Kremer who is the more inward in the ravishing opening of Romance Without Words and I prefer the slight huskiness to Kremer's tone whilst Quint more openly warms the phrasing. Surely Bernstein was born to conduct such songful melodies and he does so here with a natural, plastic phrasing Serebrier can't quite match.

Again, a quick A-B comparison of the playfully devilish Toccata-Rondo confirms the DG recording's superiority. The New York timps have added bite and presence so their glissandi and attack are clearer, highlighting the musicís tumbling quality. Rorem's steady circular phrasing again! And Bernstein better understands the relentless edge of Rorem's dark dance.

I'm grateful to Naxos for introducing me to these wonderful concertos at budget price and also for thereby encouraging me to find Bernstein/Kremer's stunning alternative to the violin concerto at my local library. And I wonder what flautist Sharon Bezaly and her BIS engineers, with their bravely natural approach, would make of the ffffff opening of the flute concerto? I bet those timpani thwacks would have more depth and violence.

David Harbin

see also Reviews by Patrick Waller and Rob Barnett


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