Music of Ned Rorem: Eagles, Piano Concerto in Six Movements, Air Music. The Louisville Orchestra – First Edition Encores. Albany Troy 047 (1991) barcode 034061004721
Eagles: conducted Gerhardt Zimmermann, recorded 13 November 1982 at the Macauley Theatre, Louisville
Piano Concerto: Jerome Lowenthal, cond. Jorge Mester 9 April 1973
Air Music: conducted Peter Leonard, recorded 30 May 1981 at the Macauley Theatre, Louisville
Two unexpected masterpieces by Ned Rorem
Originally posted on Amazon.com, 25 November 2007
I was prepared not to like the music of Ned Rorem. Other compositions I had heard of his recently – lately his Third Symphony from 1959, see my review of The American Composers Series: American Orchestral Music on VoxBox2 CDX 5092 (link will open new tab) – I had found unremarkable, couched in a post-Romantic to Coplandesque language which I found neither original nor very interesting.
That expectation indeed seemed borne out by “Eagles”, a short symphonic poem from 1958 evoking the “Dalliance of the Eagles” depicted in a Whitman poem. It has passages of genuine emotional intensity and subtle orchestral color, but overall it is too much in a style evocative either of the meditative side of Copland or Harris, or worse still of clichéd film music for a Gene Kelly musical comedy (the two lovers dancing, oblivious of the surrounding world), while Rorem can’t help resorting to a Bernstein or Morton Gould kind of muscular, biting jazz to depict conflict, which I find neither original nor very convincing.
But it all changed with the 1969 Piano Concerto in Six Movements and the 1976 “Air Music” (a Pulitzer Prize winner by the way). These are two masterful compositions. In them Rorem’s language is as advanced as anything written in those years (of the Piano Concerto the composer makes the tongue-in-cheek comment that “as to whether [the basic] material is developed serially, it may be, but [he] would be the last to declare it”), but it is varied, colorful, imaginative, dramatic, seductive – and accessible. In the Piano Concerto both the piano and the orchestral writing are remarkably imaginative and varied, in turn pounding (Strands, track 2), furious and busy (Fives, track 3), mysterious (Strands, track 2), whimsical and elf-like (Whispers, track 4), mysterious and lyrical (Sighs, track 5), ominous (Lava, track 6) – and always highly evocative. I’d be tempted to call this one of the best Piano Concertos of the last 50 years.
Likewise, “Air Music” is packed with events, with rich, colorful, varied and subtle orchestration, always highly evocative and highly dramatic (try the scurrying woodwinds of track 10, the scurrying flutes and violins of track 14), which doesn’t preclude moments of great lyricism (as in track 11, a stern dialogue between solo tuba and solo violin, or track 13 with a moving lament given first to cello solo then trombone over an ostinato from the piano) – but it is not a lachrymose, heart-on-sleeve lyricism.
Well done, Mr Rorem.
(And for the collector’s records: the compositions were recorded respectively in 1982, 1973 and 1981. The Piano Concerto had been released on LP Louisville LS 733, paired with works by Briccetti and Turok. The two others came out in 1981 on LS 787, one of the last LPs published by Louisville’s famed First Edition Recordings. Good sound for all. This CD, Troy 047, came out in 1991 and was I believe the last of the ten devoted to recordings by the Louisville Orchestra published by Albany in the late 1980s and early 1990s, before the orchestra tried resuming its releases on CD under its own label – and that stopped after ten releases as well.)