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Ned ROREM (b. 1923)
Piano Concerto No.2 (1951) [34:08]
Cello Concerto (2002) [25:10]
Simon Mulligan (piano); Wen-Sinn Yang (cello)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/José Serebrier
rec. 30-31 August 2006, Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow
NAXOS 8.559315 [59:18]

Time Magazine has called Ned Rorem "the world's best composer of art songs", and Rorem has written, "Anyone can be drunk, anyone can be in love, anyone can waste time and weep, but only I can pen my songs in the remaining years or minutes." It is through his songs that most people will have encountered Rorem’s music – after all, he has written about 300, including 17 song-cycles. Because of his lyrical leanings, he has said that everything he writes is vocal. Instruments sing; not for him climbing into the piano with a soft mallet to attack the strings. His career started in 1948 with the song The Lordly Hudson which was voted "the best published song of the year". In the same year he won the $1,000 George Gershwin Memorial Prize in composition.
Words are as important to Rorem as music - hence his phenomenal vocal output. To some he is better known as the author of eighteen books. Many of these are somewhat indiscreet diaries, recounting his relationships with many of the leading American musicians of the 20th century, including Bernstein, Copland, Julius Katchen and Virgil Thomson, outing several others. He is not backward in coming forward in attacking the orthodoxies of the avant-garde.
Despite his literary achievements, it’s his music which is most important and his large output covers all genres, from opera (words again) to song to chamber works. Over the sixty years of his career his style has changed very little. It has matured, to be sure, but listening to these two works written fifty years apart they are obviously the work of the same voice.
In 1949, shortly after leaving the Curtis Institute he moved to France. This was ostensibly to study with Honegger who, according to Rorem, was too ill to teach him so agreed to sign whatever papers were necessary for Rorem  to continue to receive his grant and remain in France. What started as a visit for the purposes of study turned into a nine year stay. His production of music was prodigious during this time, not to say his drinking and sexual exploits – all retold in the Paris Diary.
The Second Piano Concerto was written in Morocco in 1951, for Julius Katchen – for whom Rorem also wrote his Second Piano Sonata. Katchen’s superb performance on Decca is only available as part of an 8 CD set – 00289 475 7221. Premiered in 1954, the Concerto was reviewed favourably in Musical America, “… (it) should prove a winner in the concert hall, for it gives the soloist plenty of scope in both lyrical and virtuoso piano playing …”. Despite this, Rorem says that “The piece … lay silent for the next half century”. It was revived for a series of programmes the BBC made for Rorem’s 80th birthday in 2003 and it proved to be the winner Musical America said it was.
The first movement, despite being marked Somber and Steady is anything but that. The music flits from one mood, and tempo, to another, now rhythmic and jazzy, now slow and languid. The second, slow, movement is one of Rorem’s many songs without words, long singing lines from the winds and a rich string background – special praise here for the principal oboe. The finale (Real Fast!) is a stunning piece of writing for soloist and orchestra, filled with jazzy rhythms and a breathtaking conclusion.
After this knockout work Naxos, very sensibly, gives us 15 seconds respite before the start of the Cello Concerto, and we need this for two reasons; the Piano Concerto has overwhelmed us and the Cello Concerto starts in repose.
Rorem has written, “Although I don’t believe that non-vocal music can be proven to ‘mean’ anything … it’s still fun to give programmatic subtitles to various sections. Thus the eight movements of the (Cello) Concerto are more or less literal descriptions.” These eight movements do have fanciful titles and they do contain pointers as to their processes but they don’t give that much away. Curtain Raise is a slow and thoughtful “hello” from the soloist, There and Back contains a thrilling dialogue between cello and timpani! This is followed by a slow movement of great probity, and a violent scherzo with, as Rorem puts it, “the solo cello and solo violin engaged in a demonic confrontation”. The final four movements are more relaxed and, in the main, concentrate on the relationship between soloist and orchestra. Although most of these are short they are perfectly formed and, whilst on paper they seem to give the impression of a suite rather than a concerto, they cohere into a unified symphonic work, without ever using symphonic form.
These performances are as fine as one could hope for. Simon Mulligan is a fantastic soloist making everything Rorem throws at him sound easy. The Piano Concerto is a big work and, I would imagine, tiring to play, but he makes light of the technical difficulties. Wen-Sinn Yang is given other problems. As he has a more thoughtful work to play his challenge is to keep the argument cogent through many pages of slow discourse. He achieves this magnificently. He’s a fine young cellist and I want to hear more of him. Both soloists are accompanied - this is not really the correct word as there are passages for the orchestra alone where it can let go and show itself off to best advantage - with style and verve. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra is conducted by Serebrier who also supplies a very good note in the booklet.
This is the seventh CD devoted entirely to Rorem’s music, and third to his concertos, to appear on the Naxos label, and it is the seventh time that Naxos has done him proud.
Bob Briggs

see reviews of other Rorem works on Naxos American Classics pages 


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