Piano Concerto No.2
Simon Mulligan (piano)
Wen-Sinn Yang (cello)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Recorded on 30 & 31 August 2006 in Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: October 2007
CD No: NAXOS 8.559315
Duration: 59 minutes
Surprisingly for a composer of Ned Rorem’s repute, both of these works are marked as premiere recordings. At least the Cello Concerto (2002) is fairly recent, but Piano Concerto No.2, written for Julius Katchen, is from 1951!
It’s a splendid work, too, first heard in Paris in 1954, and is full of song and vitality. The substantial first movement is rather more diverse that its marking of ‘Somber and Steady’ might suggest. I’m not sure it is either of those things – wistful, yes, in places, but also playful and happy-go-lucky, and certainly insouciant. The piano’s opening chord takes the listener into Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.2 – and, yes, I suppose this is ‘somber’ – but the mood soon clears to reveal New York razzmatazz (although Rorem composed the work in Morocco), Gershwin lurking in the boulevards, although whether the introspective cadenza is as long as José Serebrier implies (in his booklet note) can be questioned by simply mentioning those for Beethoven No.1 and Prokofiev No.2.
The second movement of Rorem’s piano concerto is indeed ‘Quiet and Sad’, a dreamy nocturne – except for those moments that are not! – and here, as elsewhere, Simon Mulligan’s eclectic musicianship feeds naturally into the jazzy inflections and easy lyricism. His virtuosity is also keenly incisive in music that was written for a keyboard titan and which is particularly evident in the ‘Real Fast!’ finale, which opens with a Grieg-like roll on the timpani, and knows how to swing. But this is not a compendium of ‘other’ piano concertos; rather it is a thoroughly likeable and eminently well-crafted piece that does not warrant the 50-year obscurity that it has suffered. It is a popular work in the best sense and gets an obviously fine performance here, very well recorded, the piano neither overly-dominant nor overwhelmed by the full and colourful orchestra.
The Cello Concerto (written when Rorem was in his eightieth year) has eight titled-descriptively movements (‘Curtain Raise’, ‘Competitive Chaos’, One Coin, Two Sides’, et al) and plays for 25 minutes. Once again, Rorem’s penchant for atmosphere, melody, wit and ingeniousness is to the fore. The most dramatic (and longest) movement is the third ‘Three Queries, One response’, in which the strings scream with pain and the musing cello is accompanied by a piano. This is a fascinatingly enigmatic work, which, while not without its lighter side, has a haunting inwardness that makes the listener eager to explore the work further, and get inside its whimsy.
Once again the performance is excellent – Wen-Sinn Yang is a fine and dedicated player – and, in both concertos, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra was no doubt inspired by Serebrier’s enthusiasm for the Rorem cause; and, as I have indicated, the recording is impressive in its space, clarity and balance.