Rorem: Flute Concerto (2002); Violin Concerto (1985); Pilgrims (1958). Jeffrey Khaner, flute; Philippe Quint, violin; Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by José Serebrier. Naxos. $8.99.
Everything Ned Rorem writes sings. This is not a mere critical conceit: Rorem himself has said, “I conceive all non-song pieces as though they were songs – like settings of words that aren’t there.” The 82-year-old composer is best known for his songs, but he has also written a substantial body of purely instrumental music, much of which has the tempo, rhythm and thematic lines of extended wordless songs.
That is certainly true of the pieces on this CD, two of which – the Flute Concerto and Pilgrims – are world-première recordings. Pilgrims is an extended, moderately melancholy meditation for string orchestra that has nothing to do with early U.S. settlers and everything to do with what Rorem, as quoted in the CD’s booklet notes, describes as “a mood of remembrance.” It provides a pensive introduction to the two concertos.
Neither concerto is really accurately titled. Rorem suggests that the word “concerto” has many different definitions, which is true, but it does create certain common structural expectations on top of the basic one of using a solo instrument to dominate a group of others – or at least be first among equals. In light of their structure, these works might better be titled “Six Movements for Flute and Orchestra” and “Six Movements for Violin and Orchestra.” The movements are mostly self-contained, though the first and last ones of the violin work are cleverly interrelated. Each movement has a title that is more suggestive than descriptive; there is no sense of “tone painting” here. And the dominant pacing of both concertos is somewhere in the Andante-to-Moderato range – as if each work is an extended song.
Though written 17 years apart, the two concertos have some structural elements in common. The fifth movement for flute and second movement for violin use the same distinctive dynamic structure of soft-loud-soft. That fifth flute movement is called “False Waltz,” and the fifth violin movement, though labeled “Toccata-Rondo,” is in reality also a false waltz – in 4/4 time. In both works, the solo part climbs in and out of the orchestra, and is often subsumed within it – in fact, in the flute concerto, the piano is as much a solo instrument in some sections as the flute.
Among the more interesting movements are the fourth in the flute concerto, called “Hymn,” which is scored as a quintet instead of an orchestral piece; and the third in the violin concerto, “Romance without Words,” the most songlike movement of all, which Rorem says “is literally a song from which the text has been excised.”
Jeffrey Khaner, for whom the Flute Concerto was written, plays it with tremendous style and sensitivity, while Philippe Quint brings bright virtuosity plus soulfulness to the Violin Concerto. José Serebrier’s conducting is impeccably attentive to detail, and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic plays with fine tone and sensitivity to the nuances of the works. The result is a CD that sings beautifully – as Rorem’s music always should.
June 22, 2006
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