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 moo