Ned Rorem (b. 1923), the tonal Rodney Dangerfield of American music, is finally getting some respect now that his eightieth birthday has rolled around. Naxos especially has treated him well in the last few years, issuing a fine edition of a handful of his many songs with Carole Farley and Rorem himself on piano (Naxos 8.559084); in his anniversary year, his three symphonies (two of them world premieres) with José Serebrier and the Bournemouth Symphony (8.559149), as well as chamber music played by the Fibonacci Sequence (8.559128). This First Edition disc is a reissue of world premiere recordings of the Eleven Studies for Eleven Players made in 1965 and the Piano Concerto in Six Movements from 1973.
Rorem wrote the Eleven Studies in 1959 on commission from Buffalo University, which also required the composer to be resident and to conduct the work. Never having conducted anything, Rorem confessed that he "purposely notated no ritards and no accelerandos, not knowing how to indicate these with [his] arms." Though orchestral, Eleven Studies bears the hallmark of his lapidary style, so suited to his penchant for writing songs. He is indeed America's Schubert. Each study is brief: the longest just five minutes, the shortest under a minute. Some are vignettes composed for other occasions; for example, "Bird Call" and "The Diary" were meant for a production of Tennessee Williams' Suddenly Last Summer; "Contest" was written for a play called Motel. They range widely in character and tone, from an energetic "Prelude," which serves as the theme of several variations in later movements, to "Contest," which evokes city traffic and sounds like a cousin of Copland's Music for Theater, to "Invention for Battery" featuring two dueling percussionists, to the beautiful meditative solos for cello ("In Memory of My Feelings") and English horn ("Elegy").
There is one other recording of this work, by members of the Curtis Institute of Music (New World 80445-2), released in 1994. But the eleven soloists in this First Edition disc play with equal skill and feeling, and the sound, though almost forty years old, is vivid, with the placement of the ensemble even more realistic than on the New World recording. There is a bit of tape hiss — and what sounds like tape hiss in "Bird Call" but is actually a low cymbal roll — and some of the tutti passages have a shrill edge, but altogether this is a very satisfying account.
Rorem wrote the Piano Concerto in Six Movements over sixteen months in 1969-70, and on December 4, 1970 Jerome Lowethal, who commissioned the piece, gave its world premiere with the Pittsburgh Symphony under William Steinberg. In August of that year, Rorem had played with this anagram in his diary: "NED ROREM = MODERNER. But I haven't an experimental bone in my body." Perhaps not, but the concerto flirts with dissonance and even serialism; in fact it opens with a twelve-tone row, although it is not explicitly developed as such. Throughout the piece the mood is dark and somber.
Rorem's diary entries during the months he was writing the concerto suggest that the concerto's mood reflected his own. Several close friends died during this period and he himself, after a year-long creative dry spell, was reflecting on aging and death. Half done with the concerto, he wrote in September 1969 while on a flight to Paris: "Gravity ages us. After forty our jowls, armpits, breasts and buttocks sag toward the impatient earth.... Like every living thing always, we are all corpses on parole." The Paris trip, where he was constantly reminded of his salad days there in the 1950s, seems to have evoked a dark nostalgia that didn't help his mood.
The Concerto's six movements — only one over six minutes long — brood with titles like "Whispers," "Sighs," "Lava," and "Sparks." It's quite interesting for its pervasive edgy, angry melancholy. Lowenthal, whom Rorem called "the ideal player of this piece," performs beautifully. Unfortunately the 1973 recording doesn't hold up well. The sound space, so expansive in the Eleven Studies, here feels all scrunched up, with the orchestra and soloist in a narrow sphere in front of the listener and set a little too far back. In fact, I had to double check to make sure this recording was in stereo; it is. The make of the piano isn't listed, but it often sounds anemic in the middle registers, and it is not well delineated from the orchestra. The Louisville brass tend to overwhelm everyone else. It's good to have on record this portrait of Rorem in a funk; too bad the recording is not as well preserved at thirty as Rorem is at eighty.
Performance (Eleven Studies):
Performance (Piano Concerto):
Sound Quality (Eleven Studies):
Sound Quality (Piano Concerto):