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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]

Naxos has been doing sterling service in recent years by issuing recordings of music by Ned Rorem in their American Classics series. This is at least the fifth Rorem volume (link to all Rorem reviews). Naxos is not the only label to issue Rorem recordings but they’ve done more than most to expand the audience for his music.
I’ve come to admire Rorem’s music very much but I must say that the Double Concerto has particularly impressed me. He’s been a friend of the violinist, Jaime Laredo, and his cellist wife, Sharon Robinson, for many years and that friendship has already brought forth the Violin Concerto (1985) and it led also to the composition of After Reading Shakespeare. However, it was not until 1998 that a commission from the Indianapolis Symphony gave Rorem the impetus and opportunity to write something for them to play together. The resulting concerto is a very fine achievement.
The work is cast in eight movements, several of them quite short. Rorem gave these movements titles “just to get the [compositional?] juices flowing”, he writes. He says in his booklet note that these titles “connote whatever the listener chooses”. I found the titles rather helpful in approaching the music for the first time but, importantly, the titles didn’t fetter my imagination as I listened. Although there are a good number of places in the score where Rorem writes dynamically and with great rhythmic vitality it’s clear that he’s been inspired above all by the capacity of both solo instruments to sing. So there’s a good deal of warm, lyrical writing, just as one would expect from the man who became widely regarded as one of the leading composers of art songs in the twentieth century.
The lyrical vein is well to the fore in ‘Their Accord’, the fifth movement, in which the soloists combine in music that’s lyrical and full of repose. I loved this movement and also its immediate predecessor, ‘Staying on Alone’, in which the violin is silent and the cellist muses wistfully, with a touch of melancholy.
The heart of the work is the seventh movement, ‘Conversation at Midnight’. In this performance this plays for 14:27, whereas the next longest movement is a “mere” 5:30. ‘Conversation at Midnight’ is a real achievement, for in it Rorem conveys in abstract the ebb and flow, the cut and thrust, of a dialogue. The two soloists are the protagonists, of course, and they are supported by an inventive orchestral accompaniment. The music is searching. It’s dissonant at times but predominantly the mood is lyrical, featuring some long, lyrical lines for the soloists. There’s a quite passionate section between about 7:00 and 8:15, followed by a much quicker section; I wondered if this represented some form of argument. Calm is restored by 10:36 and gradually the music winds down to a peaceful end. Do the two participants in this late night dialogue drift off to sleep, I wonder?
The final section, ‘Flight’ is one of several where the music is busy, the rhythms jagged and propulsive. The work hurtles to an emphatic conclusion on a sustained major chord. This concerto is a very fine piece and one that I’m delighted to have got to know through this recording. If I describe it as entertaining I don’t mean to imply for a second that there’s anything trivial about the music but it’s a rewarding and enjoyable listen. So far as I can tell, not having previously encountered the piece, the performance is superb. Jaime Laredo and Sharon Robinson clearly love the music and they play it with passion, conviction and no little virtuosity. I’m sure they must have relished the opportunity to play as partners in a work expressly designed, surely, to match and reflect their personalities. The orchestral support, under Michael Stern’s leadership, is deft and sensitive. It’s clear from a comment in the booklet that Ned Rorem was delighted by this recording and I’m not surprised. 
After Reading Shakespeare is a somewhat earlier piece – on the jewel case Naxos date it from 1981 although in his note Rorem says 1980. There are nine short sections and once again Rorem has given each one a title. However, he says, “The individual titles were not fixed notions around which I framed the music; they emerged, as titles for non-vocal music so often do, during the composition.” And, in fact, he goes on to state that some of the titles were only added after the music had been written. It’s interesting, in this context, to note that although both the first and third sections are entitled ‘Lear’ the music is quite different in each section. The first ‘Lear’ is vigorous and very passionate. The second is quite spiky, with a good deal of pizzicato.
I was intrigued by ‘Caliban’. At one level one might have expected ugly music, since Caliban is not physically prepossessing, but Rorem has responded more to the sense that Caliban is an outsider - so the movement is built round a melancholy melody. ‘Portia’ is portrayed – if that’s the appropriate word – as a woman of dignity. The penultimate movement is entitled ’Remembrance of things past’. This is highly eloquent music, tapping a rich vein of emotion, and Sharon Robinson plays with deep feeling. The concluding section is ‘Iago and Othello’ and, as you might expect, the music is highly charged but ends, rather surprisingly, almost in mid-air.
After Reading Shakespeare is a most interesting and inventive score in which the listener’s attention is securely held from start to finish. It helps, I’m sure, that the music receives such committed advocacy as that provided by Sharon Robinson. I’m certain that it’s highly demanding, both technically and psychologically – after all, the performer must respond to a series of different moods in the various sections. It’s a challenging work but one that’s very definitely worth getting to know.
This is a fine issue, making available two very individual and worthwhile works by one of America’s leading composers.
John Quinn

see also review by Glyn Pursglove

Naxos American Classics page


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