Settings by Ned Rorem of texts by W. H. Auden, Colette, Paul Goodman, Robert Hillyer, Frank O’Hara, Langston Hughes, Thomas Ken, Jack Larson, Theodore Roethke, Edmund Spenser, Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde, William Wordsworth, Elinor Wylie, W. B. Yeats, et al
The Prince Consort [Anna Leese (soprano), Jennifer Johnston (mezzo-soprano), Tim Mead (countertenor), Andrew Staples (tenor), Jacques Imbrailo (baritone) & Alisdair Hogarth (piano)]
Recorded 10-13 February 2009 in Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK
Reviewed by: David Wordsworth
Reviewed: November 2009
CD No: LINN RECORDS CKD 342
Duration: 57 minutes
Ned Rorem, born in 1923, is still busy composing; not that long ago he completed an opera, more recently a song-cycle for Andrew Kennedy and, by all accounts, a work for his newest champions, The Prince Consort, is on the way (and scheduled for Wigmore Hall next year, 2010). The description of Rorem as “the world’s best composer of art songs” (Time Magazine) is perhaps one of the most repeated lines about any composer and is usually dragged out when people can’t think of anything else to say (thankfully this isn’t the case with Armin Zanner’s booklet-note for this release, which is informative and well-written), although I suspect that Rorem isn’t tired of reading what is quite a claim! But certainly amongst living composers one would be hard-pressed to argue with the accolade afforded him. One might well have to go back to Britten or Samuel Barber (even if Rorem himself regards vocal music as the weakest part of Barber’s output). Rorem’s catalogue of songs with piano is huge, and while quantity does not always equal quality, of course, in Rorem’s case his settings are timeless classics.
The Prince Consort (founded by Alisdair Hogarth) is fast earning itself a considerable name and much credit goes to its members for a debut release that doesn’t tread a tried and trusted path and focuses instead on Rorem’s songs as well as selections from his evening-length work for vocal quartet and piano, “Evidence of Things Not Seen”.
Of the 29 settings included on this Linn release, some highlights include Jacques Imbrailo bringing his smooth baritone to the classic ‘Early in the Morning’ as he also does with Rorem’s touching arrangement of ‘Jeanie with the light brown hair’. It’s fascinating to hear Tim Mead bring his liquid countertenor to ‘That shadow, my likeness’ (Whitman) and ‘Do I love you more than a day?’ (Jack Larson). Andrew Staples brings the early, ecstatic ‘Alleluia’ to almost Tippettian life and tackles some of Rorem’s most angular vocal lines in ‘The Serpent’ with ease. Perhaps the best moments for Anna Leese come in the surprisingly sparse setting of ‘Now sleeps the crimson petal’ (Tennyson), whilst Jennifer Johnston’s account of the setting of Frank O’Hara’s ‘I will always love you’ is wonderfully expressive. These solos songs are just fine, but arguably the most effective parts come when these superb singers become a consort, not least in ‘Requiescat’ (Wilde) and ‘The Rainbow’ (William Wordsworth). Rorem’s deceptively tricky piano parts are played with care and musicality by Alisdair Hogarth.
As always with Rorem, the texts (all are included in the booklet) are wide-ranging – from Whitman, Spenser, Auden to Yeats, Roethke and Tennyson, as well as poems by Rorem’s friends Frank O’Hara and Paul Goodman. Every word of every poem is set with such understanding that, even with the best-known texts, it seems as if the music has always been there – surely the greatest compliment to any composer. One can point to influences – Poulenc certainly, Copland, and some English song-writers of the early-twentieth-century, but the music is never derivative and ultimately Rorem is nobody but himself.
Ned Rorem has said that he composes the music that he wants to listen to – with performances like these, everyone should be tuning-in to Rorem’s scores. (Indeed! A confession from the editor: I have never really ‘got’ Rorem’s songs prior to this release, but this Linn recording is revelatory, devotedly sung and played, and altogether special – Ed.)