I first became really aware of the music of Ned Rorem
when I bought the marvellous 1999 disc of his songs by Susan
and Malcolm Martineau (see review
Since then I’ve added several more discs of his songs to
my collection and several discs of his orchestral and choral
music. And the more I’ve got to know his output the more
impressed I am by it. He is a fastidious craftsman with a genuine
melodic gift and an often-intriguing harmonic palette. He’s
composed over 600 songs, I believe, and perhaps his particular
success in that genre is down to his ability to unite the attributes
I’ve just mentioned with an evident fine feeling for words
- not for nothing have his published diaries been widely acclaimed.
In a very brief but gracious preface to a recent printed collection
of his songs he writes thus: “Whatever the music may now
be worth, I flatter myself that their choice of poetry is quite
high class”. (Ned Rorem. 50 Collected Songs
Boosey & Hawkes 2006). In my opinion he’s unnecessarily
self-deprecating about his music, which is consistently fine,
and right on the money about the discriminating choice of texts.
I may be wrong but I fancy that this disc may mark the debut
on record of The Prince Consort. The Consort is a group of five
young singers, brought together by pianist Alisdair Hogarth,
their artistic director. All the members of the Consort were
students together at London’s Royal College of Music. The
fact that a group of talented singers are working together opens
up significant recital possibilities for them, I should imagine,
in the same way that Graham Johnson and the Songmakers’ Almanac
collaborated some years ago. The Prince Consort appears to have
developed something of an affinity for the music of Ned Rorem
and in October 2009, as part of the Oxford Lieder Festival, they
gave the European première of Rorem’s 1997 collection
of thirty-six songs for four singers and piano, Evidence of
Things Not Seen
. To my great regret I wasn’t able to
attend that important event. I’m pleased to find that they’ve
included five of the songs from Evidence of Things Not Seen
I hope that what I trust will be the success of this present
CD will give them and Linn Records the encouragement to make
a complete recording of that collection for, on the evidence
of this disc, a recording of it by The Prince Consort would provide
strong competition for the excellent 1998 recording by The New
York Festival of Song (New
World Records 80575-2).
The present programme offers an excellent introduction for anyone
coming new to Rorem’s songs. A good number are fairly early
pieces but there’s a judicious leavening of later pieces
also. I don’t think that the solo recitals by Susan Graham,
especially, or by Carole Farley (see review
are necessarily displaced. Rather this new disc complements them,
but it enjoys an important advantage in that the opportunity
to hear several different voices adds to our appreciation of
the songs. In that respect it’s rather like the extra dimension
when one hears Berlioz’s Les Nuits d’été
by several singers rather than by just one.
Collectors may be slightly surprised to see that a counter-tenor
features in the programme since that voice is still a comparative
rarity in recitals of modern art songs. However, I know of at
least one other recording of Rorem songs by a counter-tenor -
Brian Asawa’s recording
the cycle More Than A Day
- and in any event Tim Mead
makes a fine contribution and his voice seems to me to be well
suited to the songs allotted to him. Indeed, throughout the disc
solo songs seem to have been well chosen for the singers to whom
they are assigned. If I have a regret it’s that we don’t
get more opportunities to hear baritone Jacques Imbrailo. I don’t
mean any disrespect to his colleagues but Imbrailo impresses
in each of his three solo numbers and I would have welcomed an
even greater contribution from him.
He opens the programme auspiciously with a suave rendition of Early
in the morning
, which Armin Zanner says, in his excellent
notes, was composed in 1958, though the music bears the date
1955. It’s a wonderful, easeful song, conjuring up mental
images of 1950s Parisian café society. Imbrailo’s
warm, round tone is ideally suited to this song and he delivers
its lovely melodic line quite splendidly while Alisdair Hogarth
brings out the Ravelian grace in the accompaniment. Later in
the recital Imbrailo is equally successful in Rorem’s affectionate
and inventive arrangement of Stephen Foster’s Jeanie with
the light brown hair
and he’s just as impressive in
his exuberant account of I strolled across an open field
Incidentally, that’s one of the relatively few pieces on
the disc that’s in a tempo other than moderate or slow.
Tenor Andrew Staples also makes a most effective contribution.
His singing in For Susan
is clear and poised and shortly
afterwards he has a very different song allocated to him in the
shape of Catullus: On the burial of His Brother
is an eloquent elegy by Catullus, the Roman poet of the first
century BC, here set in English translation. It’s an eloquent
song and Staples does it very well, his voice rising to some
fine, ringing top notes. I also like his performance of Alleluia
Like Randall Thompson’s choral anthem, Rorem sets just
the one word. But there similarities end. Where Thompson’s
piece is broad and prayerful Rorem’s bristles with energy
- the music is marked ‘Fast and somewhat hysterical’.
I wouldn’t describe Andrew Staples’ singing as hysterical
- in fact it’s excellently controlled - but he brings out
all the vitality in the outer sections of the song and is just
as effective in the more reflective, slower central section.
Near the end of the recital he gives a virtuoso performance of The
. I’m not entirely sure I like this song. The
music has a significant dissonance quotient and the melodic line
is spikier than I care for but it’s a witty creation and
Staples gives a super and very characterful performance of it.
Counter-tenor Tim Mead has several solos. I enjoyed That shadow,
, taken from Rorem’s Whitman Cantata
in which the 12/8 metre suits the words brilliantly. Sometimes
with one I love
, another setting of Whitman but from twenty-five
years earlier, is a fine song, encompassing significant mood
swings in a mere two pages of music. Mead is very convincing.
He’s also good in the Yeats setting Do not love too long
where the word “he” in the printed text is changed
to “she”, altering the piece, quite reasonably, into
a man’s song.
Soprano Anna Leese has several fine songs allotted to her. Her
account of the brief but touching Little Elegy
positioned in the programme to provide an effective contrast
after the exuberance of Alleluia
. Rorem’s setting
of Now sleeps the crimson petal
is a world away
from some English settings, such as the one by Roger Quilter.
Rorem’s response to Tennyson’s poem is tense and
dramatic and Miss Leese communicates the song very effectively.
She and Alisdair Hogarth convey the strong atmosphere of this
music very well indeed. To Miss Leese falls the very last item
in the programme, Full of life now
. This is another Whitman
setting, dating from 1989. Though written over twenty years ago
I did wonder if its inclusion was a little statement on the composer’s
behalf for even now in his eighty-seventh year he seems to be
very active and he has written a new work for The Prince Consort;
they will give the première at London’s Wigmore
Hall later this year.
The one singer I’ve not yet discussed is mezzo Jennifer
Johnston and whilst it’s invidious to single out one singer
among such an excellent team her singing impressed me most of
all. She has a beautifully rounded mezzo voice; the middle and
bottom registers are warm and pleasing while the top of her voice
is completely secure. Production is even throughout the compass
of the voice and overall her singing makes a most positive impression.
I admired very much her account of Stopping by Woods on a
, a song dedicated to Rorem’s father.
This is the only piece for which the text is not supplied - presumably
for copyright reasons. It’s the poem by Robert Frost that
contains the famous lines ‘But I have promises to keep/And
miles to go before I sleep’. Further on in the programme
Miss Johnston gives a very fine performance of I will always
. In sinuous melodic line of this song her warm tone
is a distinct advantage and her top notes are impressive; she
brings off the lovely ending most poetically.
In addition to the solo items there are five pieces that require
between two and four singers. These are all taken from Evidence
of Things Not Seen
and in each instance the singers involved
blend their voices most effectively and with evident understanding.
This is where one feels the benefit of singers who are used to
working as a team rather than just coming together for an occasional
performance. For me the stand-out item among the ensemble pieces
is the quartet Hymn for Evening
, the number that closes
the second of the three parts of Evidence of Things Not Seen.
only four voices are used it offers us a reminder of Rorem’s
excellence as a writer of choral music. In this performance I
loved the quiet fervour of the singing, much of which is unaccompanied,
and the ‘Amen’ with which the quartet ends is exquisite.
This is an exceptionally fine recital. All six performers are
evidently fully engaged with Rorem’s style and idiom. The
standard of the singing is consistently high and the diction
is excellent throughout. Rorem’s crucially important and
often-difficult piano parts are expertly played by Alisdair Hogarth.
As we have come to expect from Linn, the sound is clear, truthful
and well balanced, providing a very pleasant listening experience.
As I said earlier, some previous Rorem recitals on disc retain
their importance, but if you want a single-disc introduction
to this very fine and important composer of songs you can’t
do better than this disc by this fine ensemble. And seasoned
Rorem collectors should take note of one further important point.
Most of the recordings of Rorem’s songs to date have been
by American artists. This new disc offers a chance, which should
be seized upon, to hear an expert and evidently committed young
British team in his music I hope the Linn and The Prince Consort
will give us a follow-up to this splendid disc very soon.