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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
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/José Serebrier
rec. 30-31 August 2006, Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow NAXOS 8.559315 [59:18]
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
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
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
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
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.
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