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Ned ROREM (b. 1923)
Double Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra (1998) [32:21]
After Reading Shakespeare (1981) [21:53]
Jaime Laredo (violin); Sharon Robinson (cello)
IRIS Orchestra/Michael Stern
rec. 4 April 2004, Germantown Performing Arts Center, Tennessee (concerto); 23-24 March 1982, Astoria Studios, New York (Shakespeare)
NAXOS 8.559316 [54:14]



Not many have been as gifted with both words and notes as Ned Rorem is. His autobiographical writings, such as The Paris Diary (1966), The New York Diary (1967), An Absolute Gift (1974) and Knowing When to Stop (1994), would have gained him a considerable fame even if his music had been a good deal less accomplished than it is; and, of course, the fame of the music itself is quite independent of Rorem’s gifts as a writer. That he has the rare kind of mind and creativity which function equally well in words and music perhaps lies behind his particular brilliance as a composer of songs – he composes settings with a musician’s skill, but he also composes them with a writer’s understanding of how words work. This present CD makes one wonder, contrariwise, whether when it comes to his instrumental music Rorem’s facility with words might not sometimes be a distraction.
 
The two soloists on this CD – the husband and wife team of violinist Jaime Laredo and cellist Sharon Robinson – have apparently been friends of Rorem’s for some twenty five years. The solo cello suite was written specifically for Robinson in 1980 and premiered at Alice Tully Hall in New York on 15 March 1981; in 1985 Rorem wrote his Violin Concerto “at Jaime’s behest”, to use Rorem’s own words. In 1998 a commission from the Indianapolis Symphony provided an opportunity for the composition of the Double Concerto for Laredo and Robinson.
 
Rorem’s booklet note on the Double Concerto contains the following rather odd statement: “Music being the least representational of the arts (it does not depict other than itself), the overall title is abstract: Double Concerto. Nevertheless, just to get the juices flowing, I did impose “concrete” titles onto the eight movements, which require 35 minutes to unfold. These titles connote whatever the listener chooses”. (They are, for the sake of reference: Morning - Adam and Eve – Mazurka - Staying on Alone - Their Accord – Looking - Conversation at Midnight - Flight). I find this hard to unravel. Particularly the suggestion, on the one hand, that the titles were “imposed” on the movements – which surely suggests that the music existed before titles were “imposed” on it? And, on the other hand, the suggestion that the titles were invented so that the composer might “get the juices flowing” – which surely suggests that the words existed before the music? In any case, we are told that the titles should “connote whatever the listener chooses” – which makes them meaningless and surely makes their presence pointless. Save that they don’t seem to be quite meaningless – Rorem goes on to declare “I will state only that in Adam and Eve the two soloists are literally born on stage: they emerge from the womb of the orchestra” (which is, incidentally, a pretty strange use of the word ‘literally!). In the case of After Reading Shakespeare Rorem’s notes contain some similarly distracting statements. In this work seven of the nine movements carry the name of characters – Lear (twice), Katharine, Titania and Oberon, Caliban, Portia, Iago and Othello – and two are given  titles in the form of quotations from Shakespeare’s Sonnets “Why hear’st thou music sadly?” (Sonnet 8) and “Remembrance of things past” (Sonnet 30).

Can the listener assume that there is a programmatic significance to these titles? Apparently not, according to Rorem: “The individual titles were not fixed notions around which I framed the music; they emerged, as titles for non-vocal pieces so often do, during the composition. Yes, I was rereading Shakespeare that July … Yet the experience did not so much inspire the music itself as provide a cohesive program upon which the music might be formalized, and thus intellectually grasped by the listener. Indeed, some of the titles were added after the fact, as when parents christen their children”. This is a bit easier to understand as a description of the process of creation, but it still leaves one suspicious that these titles, apparently intended to make it easier for the listener to “grasp” the music actually get in the way. Certainly my own experience with After Reading Shakespeare (and, indeed, with the Double Concerto) was that listening with the titles to hand trapped me into a finally rather unrewarding attempt to invent connections between the sounds I was hearing and the titles in my hand. Once I gave up that exercise and concentrated on the sounds themselves, the whole experience was a good deal more rewarding. Both of these pieces are good, interesting pieces of music; they are not programmatic music and the half-suggestion which Rorem makes that we might treat them as such does them a disservice.
 
The Double Concerto is scored for relatively modest forces – eight winds, four brass and strings. The absence of percussion prompts a delightfully wry observation from the conductor: “In growing older I have come to feel that percussion is, at best, mere decoration, at worst, immoral, like too many earrings or too many exclamation points!!”). Too much ‘exclamation’, being over-demonstrative isn’t something that Rorem’s music here goes in for. It operates more subtly and prefers understatement as its dominant idiom. A gentle, reflective opening and a (relatively) vertiginous conclusion frame six movements which vary in length from less than two minutes to more than fourteen. In the longest movement (‘Conversation at Midnight’) the dialogue of the two solo instruments is heard at its most interesting, the tonal interplay quite delightful. In a brief but busy movement (‘Mazurka’), both soloists are given some attractively lilting music; ‘Staying on Alone’ is a beautiful song for cello. Throughout both soloists play with utter conviction and gentle certainty of intention and execution, and Stern is a wholly sympathetic accompanist. If you insist on all your contemporary music being challenging, if you demand that contemporary music push back boundaries and extend instrumental techniques and resources, then you will presumably know better than to turn to Rorem’s work to satisfy your tastes. If, on the other hand, you can be content, at least now and then, with essentially tonal writing in which the performers use traditional instrumental techniques in the service of music of unembarrassed lyrical beauty, then you will surely enjoy this Double Concerto.
 
Rorem’s suite for solo cello is another attractive work, a little more searching, perhaps, in its exploitation of the instrument’s technical resources, though the idiom remains largely traditional. There are movements of powerful drama, with a sense of barely suppressed aggression or intense emotional pain; there are movements characterised by a sense of enduring melancholy and others that at least approach the playful. Sharon Robinson is an authoritative soloist and I intend no criticism of her if I suggest that the work is so rich in possibilities that I would like to hear alternative readings of it alongside hers.
 
I enjoyed the balance on this CD of the relative opulence of an orchestral work alongside a work for unaccompanied solo cello. Both are rewarding works, both get high quality performances on this well-recorded CD.
 
Glyn Pursglove

 
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