There's a rediscovery of Ned Rorem's non-vocal music, with much of that due to Naxos and the evangelical efforts of José Serebrier. This is a terrific listen, with fine performances. While the Piano Concerto is ebullient, occasionally plangent and pictorial, the Cello Concerto shows how much Rorem has refined his scoring. --GRAMOPHONE EDITOR'S CHOICE

    Better Late Than Never, These Rorem Premieres Are Irrisistible

    How remarkable that two such delectable concertos should be receiving their world premieres on disc. Unapologetically romantic and accessible, those qualities may well have mitigated against acceptance among the industry's fashion-mongers. The Second Piano Concerto (1951) was written for Julius Katchen and was given its first performance by that superb pianist in 1954. Since then it has lain dormant until its present by Simon Mulligan whose brilliance, ideally matched by José Serebrier, is worthy of Katchen himself. Here, the ghosts of Ravel, Français, Gershwin, Stravinsky and, most of all, Poulenc, jostle for attention. Yet Rorem's idiom is personal as it is chic. The finale, "Real Fast", is an irresistible tour de force played up to the hilt by Mulligan.

    In the Cello Concerto Rorem happily eschews a conventional form, giving programmatic subtitles to each section. These range from "Curtain Raise" to "Adrift", offering Wen-Sinn Yang a rich opportunity, whether playing primus inter pares or revelling in Rorem's alternating nostalgia and effervescence. Finely recorded, it's a clear winner for the Naxos American Classics series.

    --Review by Bryce Morrison, Gramophone, December 2007

    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.

    --Review by Bob Briggs, Musicweb International, November 2007

    The two concertos by Ned Rorem (b. 1923) on this recent Naxos release will appeal to listeners with an ear for late romantic American music. Both are world premiere recordings, which is surprising considering they're highly imaginative, beautifully written works that one would have expected to appear on CD long before now. The composer studied orchestration with Virgil Thomson (see the recommendation for two of Thomson’s film scores below) and it certainly shows in the highly colorful second piano concerto (1951) that begins this disc.

    The first of its three movements is marked "Somber and Steady," and begins with a slow introduction played by the soloist. He’s soon joined by the orchestra as the music builds to a stormy crescendo. This quickly subsides and the piano introduces an agitated, spiky theme that's briefly developed and serves as an introduction to a lovely lyrical counter melody. These motifs alternate, setting the stage for an extended cadenza where Rorem now and then pays homage to the piano music of one of his early idols, Maurice Ravel. The two thematic ideas then reappear, intermingle and are further developed as the movement ends in animated fashion. The next section, "Quiet and Sad," is as advertised with more French impressionist overtones. There are a couple of dramatic tsunamis that heighten the emotional tension, but the conclusion is peaceful and quite pastoral sounding. The last movement, entitled "Real Fast," is a brilliant hyperactive romp and guaranteed crowd-pleaser with plenty of opportunities for the soloist to show off his keyboard skills. At times it's almost seems a rhythmic cross between George Gershwin's Concerto in F and the wilder moments in Aram Khachaturian's Gayne Ballet. The final bars are thrilling and similar in spirit to the outside movements of Ravel's G major piano concerto.

    The cello concerto is much later Rorem (2002), and stylistically similar to his two concertos for flute and violin respectively, which appeared not too long ago on another Naxos disc (see the newsletter of 16 June 2006). All three are atypical, because each is in at least six movements, every one of which bears a fancifully descriptive title. They're a kind of orchestral song cycle where the vocalist is replaced by a solo instrument, and the words with thematic ideas that take on a meaning all of their own thanks to Rorem’s extraordinary sense of melodic invention. The genesis of these pieces is quite understandable when you consider the composer is best known as a songwriter. For want of a better name, one might even think of them as concerto canticos. But returning to the one here for cello, it’s in eight sections, which display a variety of moods. The opening movement, "Curtain Raise," is meditative. The second, "There and Back," is rather sinister with the timpani intoning a kind of "stalking bass" that becomes absolutely hypnotic. It’s quite similar to the "False Waltz" and "Toccata-Chaconne" sections of the flute and violin concertos previously mentioned. The next five movements are equally as inventive and varied as their catchy titles, giving the cellist an opportunity to explore every tonal aspect of the instrument. The last one, “Adrift,” is a diaphanous Verklarte Nacht-like apparition that disappears into the nocturnal mists, leaving the listener hoping Rorem will give us some more concerto canticos.

    Make sure you read the excellent album notes by conductor Jose Serebrier for more interesting details about this piece. And speaking of Serebrier, he along with pianist Simon Mulligan, Cellist Wen-Sinn Yang and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra do us a great service by delivering stunning performances of these two outstanding works. The recording is quite good, but a little brighter and drier sounding than Serebrier’s previous Rorem release on Naxos mentioned above. The music on both discs is brimming over with enough ideas to keep you returning to them again and again.

    --Review by Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found, October 30, 2007