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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]
Experience Classicsonline

This CD is the latest in a series of important Naxos issues to feature the music of Ned Rorem who is, surely, along with Elliot Carter one of America’s two greatest living composers. Both works featured here are receiving their first recordings. In the case of the Cello Concerto, composed only six years ago, that’s perhaps understandable. In the case of the Second Piano Concerto, however, it’s nothing short of a scandal that this work has had to wait over fifty years for its first recording. Not for the first time Naxos puts to shame the major labels that dominated the recording industry for so long.
The Piano Concerto was written for Julius Katchen, no less, and first performed in 1954, presumably by Katchen though the otherwise excellent notes by José Serebrier are a little unclear on that point. Serebrier quotes a review of the première in which the following verdict was delivered. “This extremely attractive and lively work, which has a distinctly American character at times, should prove a winner in the concert hall, for it gives the soloist plenty of scope in both lyrical and virtuoso piano playing, and is effectively scored for an orchestra with a large percussion section.” The first part of that comment in particular is so right on the money that I could just say “I agree” and end my notice there. I’ve not heard the work until this disc arrived but it strikes me as a brilliant entertainment and one of the most engaging and successful pieces of new music (by which I mean new to me) that I’ve heard in a very long time.  
The work is cast in three movements. The first, marked “Somber and Steady” accounts for nearly half the length of the whole work. It begins in a tranquil vein, the pianist playing a chordal passage alone. As the orchestra joins in a lyrical oboe tune is especially notable. The volume and urgency builds until a quicker tempo is reached (2:04) at which point the music is, in Serebrier’s words, “full of sparkle”. This section is sheer delight. The music is witty and infectiously jolly. A slower section follows (4:02) where the music becomes relaxed and more easeful. A wistful, reflective solo for piano is echoed by horn and bassoon and then other woodwinds.  After another fast episode (6:51) the cadenza begins. This is a very substantial part of the movement (8:51 – 12:33) and Rorem gives his soloist plenty of chance for display, without ever resorting to mere showmanship. However, a good deal of the cadenza is thoughtful in tone. Around 10:06 I thought I detected a brief, perhaps unconscious, echo of the first movement of Ravel’s G major concerto – this is quite fitting since Rorem’s work displays the same wit, exuberance, lyricism and sheer good taste that one finds in Ravel’s masterpiece. The cadenza is brought to an end with a delicious little horn solo. Initially Rorem seems reluctant to dispel the reflective mood in which the cadenza ends but eventually (around 13:30) joie de vivre reasserts itself. A perky episode, led by the woodwinds (around 14:00), really made me smile and then the end of the movement is fast and furious.
The second movement, “Quiet and Sad “, sounds to me like a nocturne. The oboe and bassoon start off the proceedings in exactly the vein indicated by Rorem’s marking. For the most part what follows is beautifully lyrical music, shot through with a vein of nostalgia and no little tenderness. There are, however, a couple of well-judged climaxes, the second of which is topped off by a bluesy trumpet. This lovely creation holds, indeed demands, the listener’s attention throughout its span of 12:35.
The tempo indication at the head of the finale is “Real Fast!” That says it all in a way. The soloist plunges straight in, launching into music of great verve and high spirits. I found myself reminded of the comparable movement in Ravel’s Piano Concerto. Display and high good humour predominate. The rhythms are perky and jazz inflected throughout. Like Ravel’s finale this music is brilliant but also highly sophisticated and superbly crafted. It’s as much a test for the orchestra as for the pianist. This tuneful, joyous movement is great fun and comes to an emphatic, smiling end.
I’ve talked about the music but not about the performance. I can be brief. It’s superb. Simon Mulligan is a marvellous soloist, impressing equally with his dashing virtuosity and his lyrical gifts. José Serebrier and the RSNO support him to the hilt, matching him for virtuosity. Best of all, it sounds as if everyone involved is having fun.  Why, oh why, has this work been so grievously neglected? Are soloists and conductors too lazy to learn it? Are promoters too reticent? Perhaps the truth is that few people even knew of the work. If that’s so then this fine performance should help its cause greatly. I’m convinced that if audiences get a chance to hear it they’ll love it. Perhaps next time a performance of, say, one of Shostakovich’s concertos is planned this piece could be given an airing instead – and I speak as someone who likes both of Shostakovich’s concertos.
The Cello Concerto is cast in eight short, titled movements. It’s become something of a trait for Rorem to structure concert works in this fashion recently. It’s a somewhat tougher proposition than the Piano Concerto in that the level of dissonance is somewhat higher and some of the melodies are spikier. However, it’s a rewarding listening experience.
The soloist, Wen-Sinn Yang is Principal Cellist with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, in which capacity I heard him give a splendid performance of Strauss’s Don Quixote under Mariss Jansons in Birmingham in April 2005. Here, in very different music, he excels once again.
The first, short section is entitled “Curtain Raise.” The dominant feature is a pensive, quite intense cello solo. This gives way to “There and Back”. The composer himself describes this music as consisting of “137 rapid measures that are split down the middle from whence they return to their beginning”. This seems to suggest a palindrome but it’s not, though the music does indeed form something of an arch. The most substantial movement, by some distance, is “Three Queries, One Response.” This, essentially, is founded on two ideas. It opens with a long, passionate and angular melody heard in the orchestra, followed by a ruminative passage for the soloist, accompanied chiefly by a quiet piano ostinato. This material is very beautiful, indeed haunting at times, and it shows yet again what a gift for lyrical melody this composer possesses.
The brief fourth movement bears the strange title, “Competitive Chaos”. It’s a very spiky piece – the marking is “Quick and Brutal” – which exhibits great energy. It’s not the most ingratiating part of the work but it’s very exciting. Next we hear “A Single Tone, A Dozen Implications.” This is a strange movement, possessing one feature that I suspect may be unique in the concerto repertoire: the solo part consists of one single note, E, sustained without expression throughout the 1:27 duration. The argument is sustained by the orchestra, which, in Rorem’s words, “imposes, separately, a sequence of twelve colours in varying intensities.” It’s a most unusual section.
Following this is “One Coin, Two Sides”. This is a slow movement, ardent at the start, where we hear some imaginative orchestral scoring. Towards the end comes a remarkable passage in which the soloist and a small ensemble of orchestral cellists play together some most affecting music, which is very gentle and quite touching. After this comes “Valse Rappelé”, which is an orchestration of a piece Rorem penned in 1984. The work ends with “Adrift”. This is a lovely envoi. It’s lightly scored, mainly for harp and strings, with the soloist singing out a long, plaintive melody until the music just fades away into nothingness.
This is a highly effective piece. It may not have quite the immediate appeal of the Piano Concerto but, like the earlier work, it displays imagination and compositional skill in abundance. Wen-Sinn Yang gives a commanding account of what I imagine to be a demanding solo part and once again José Serebrier and the RSNO provide distinguished and committed support.
In both pieces the recorded sound is very good, with a realistic balance achieved in between soloist and orchestra. The notes, by José Serebrier, are excellent, though they are only provided in English.
I don’t think any other record label has ever given so much sustained support to Ned Rorem’s music as Naxos have been doing. Collectors should be in no doubt that his music is eminently worthy of this championship. I’ve been both stimulated and entertained by my encounter with these two fine works and I hope this enterprising release will bring them much wider public recognition and will lead to further performances.
John Quinn 
see also review by Bob Briggs

Reviews of other Naxos Rorem recordings 


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