October 25, 2007


Rorem: Piano Concerto No. 2; Cello Concerto. Simon Mulligan, piano; Wen-Sinn Yang, cello; Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by José Serebrier. Naxos. $8.99.

Ries: Piano Concerto in C sharp minor, Op. 55; Swedish National Airs with Variations; Introduction and Polonaise. Christopher Hinterhuber, piano. Gävle Symphony Orchestra conducted by Uwe Grodd. Naxos. $8.99.

      A virtuoso showpiece that never quite caught on and is only now receiving its world premiere recording, Ned Rorem’s Second Piano Concerto was written in 1951 in a style best described as eclectic. It’s quite a piece of work by any standards. The first movement, marked “Somber and Steady,” is neither, starting with broad and dramatic strokes, followed by piano chords reminiscent of Rachmaninoff’s, then moving through jazz inflections, a touch of the Gershwin sound and a very long and very difficult cadenza before the end. The second movement, “Quiet and Sad,” again does not quite match its label, being songful and poetic with broad, sweeping string themes reminiscent momentarily of Dvořák and periodically of film music. The third and final movement is marked “Real Fast!” – complete with exclamation point – and is indeed speedy, with lots of brass, percussion, piano runs up and down the scales, and well-designed contrasts in speed and orchestration (such as the use of a solo violin for a brief contemplative moment). Beautifully played by Simon Mulligan, who attacks the work with the intensity it needs, and excellently accompanied by José Serebrier and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, the concerto leaves one wondering why it hasn’t ever caught on – and whether it still might.

      Rorem’s Cello Concerto, also here receiving its world premiere recording, is much more recent, written in 2002. It is in seven mostly brief movements. The first, “Curtain Raise,” is essentially a cadenza. The second, “There and Back,” starts and ends with timpani and is notable for a brass fanfare whose rhythm the solo cello then picks up. Next is “Three Queries, One Response,” the longest movement, featuring a broad string theme, a gentle pairing of cello and piano, some unexpected brass yawps, and a quiet cello-and-piano ending. The fourth movement, “Competitive Chaos,” is short and scherzo-like; the fifth, “A Single Tone, A Dozen Implications,” is even shorter, and requires the solo cello to hold a single note throughout while the orchestra exclaims and comments around it. The sixth movement, “Valse Rappelée,” is dissonant, not too dancelike, and is an orchestral version of an earlier Rorem dance for cello. The final movement, “Adrift,” is atmospheric and athematic, eventually simply drifting away. Wen-Sinn Yang plays well, but this is less a cello concerto in a traditional sense than an orchestral work with cello obbligato – and Serebrier and the orchestra do it full justice. Still, the work does not have the visceral appeal of the Second Piano Concerto, and is likely to take some getting used to for many listeners.

      Ferdinand Ries’ Piano Concerto, Op. 55, on the other hand, has immediate and substantial appeal. Its numbering is complicated, since Ries’ concertos were numbered sequentially no matter what solo instrument they featured – so his first concerto for piano is labeled Concerto No. 2 (his very first concerto was for violin). On that basis, this is Ries’ Concerto No. 3, or his second for piano. Numbering specifics are unnecessary to appreciate this finely constructed work, however. The strong and dramatic minor-key opening leads to a striding rhythm that proclaims the large scale of the work. The extended first movement features very good interplay between piano and orchestra. The second movement is short – really only an interlude – and is pleasantly melodic, sounding relaxed and often a bit Mozartean. The finale has a distinctly Mozartean opening theme, too, but the movement quickly becomes more intensely Romantic when the orchestra enters. The elaborate sections of the movement make the rondo theme’s occasional return a surprise. The slower and quieter section just before the coda is a surprise as well, and the intensity of the conclusion is well-handled. Christopher Hinterhuber surmounts the work’s difficulties with apparent ease, ably abetted by Uwe Grodd and the Gävle Symphony Orchestra in a strong performance that makes the general neglect of Ries seem quite unfair.

      The two other pieces on this CD, though, make the neglect a bit more understandable. Both have their moments, but both are superficial and without significant interest; even Hinterhuber’s playing seems less involved than in the concerto. Swedish National Airs with Variations was written about when the concerto was (1812). It too has a dramatic opening – reminiscent of the start of Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto, completed two years earlier. The variations themselves are elaborate treatments of three simple Swedish folk themes: a cradle song, peasant dance and miller’s dance. The orchestra plays strictly a supporting role in a sort of rhapsodic fantasia that is musically inconsequential but can be an attractive virtuoso showpiece. Introduction and Polonaise is a later work, from 1833, five years before Ries’ death. It has an expansive opening with considerable prominence given to horns, and thereafter meanders between delicacy and power and drifts between major and minor. It is not, by and large, a brilliant display piece except in a few sections. And Hinterhuber’s playing, here and in the Swedish National Airs with Variations, is nothing special: accurate and methodical, but not very exciting. Ries was clearly a gifted but uneven composer, whose better works are definitely worth hearing but whose lesser ones may be more effective in other hands than these.

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