ROREM: Piano Album No. 1 = Piano Album I; Six Friends – Carolyn Enger, piano – Naxos 8.559761, 51:11 (10/29/13) ****:
Self-proclaimed romantic – in the dual personae of composer and memoirist – and perennial Francophile, Ned Rorem (b. 1923) has accrued a potent reputation as a composer of art songs and rewarding keyboard music whose practitioners have included Julius Katchen, Eugene Istomin, and Carolyn Enger, the last of whom earned direct praise from Rorem for this present disc (rec. 16-17 March 2009).
The collection of miniatures, Piano Album I, consists of 27 pieces that date from 1978 to 2001. The syntax of these miniatures tends to be tonal, modal, and melodically nostalgic, much in the lyrical style of Rorem’s beloved Poulenc. Many of these works later evolved into more substantive works for various genres. Rorem conceived many of the pieces as character sketches or atmospheric “appreciations” of his longtime companion Jim Homes (d. 1999) and their domestic situation. A work like Serenade for Two Paws (1985) celebrates their pet Bichon. Nineteen Measures for Jim (1986) devotes one note for each of the years of their nineteenth anniversary. The intensity and richness of the individual tones should resonate as does an equally compressed piece by Webern. This Serpentine Etude (1990) enjoys a darkly chromatic hue, though it celebrates a twenty-third anniversary. For a Perfect Friend (1991) perhaps unconsciously sounds like a Satie Gymnopedie.
Snapshot of Jack (1992) was used in the film Three Women for a Claire Bloom monologue. Its plaintive parlando style conveys a mood of pending uncertainty. Several other pieces serve as birthday presents, such as the 1994 A Melody for Shirley (Perle) moves in little bell tones, a subdued feat that Grieg might have appreciated. So, too, On His Birthday (1995) virtually sings its inscription, “O Jim, I will love you forever.” A Talisman for Jim on Christmas Eve (1994) quite openly suggest a pun on that same composer – his own O Nata Lux – whom Vaughan Williams immortalized. Ah Jim (1995) explores a kind of stretto and polyphony, as an expression of a vertical depth of feeling within a sense of mortality. Sometimes one can hear Schumann’s Sphinxes or a little kernel of melody in an Eastern idiom that could be Javanese Debussy or Gurdieff.
For a Perfect Sister (1997) clearly celebrates Rorem’s sister Rosemary. The 1999 Seventy-seven Notes for Rosemary does the same. The years 1998-1999 provide a series of suspended-time pieces, intimations of mortality and the end of a millennium. Overtly, Ninety-nine Notes to the Milennium says it all, while tonally addressing Ben Yarmolinsky as either a “Friend” or “Enemy” of Modern Music. For Ben, a “large” piece, comes close to Rorem’s writing a Debussy arabesque or gamelan equivalent. Waiting to Get Well (2000) is for Eugene Istomin, whom I met in Binghamton a year or so before. Istomin told me that after he had recorded the Schumann Concerto with Bruno Walter, the conductor asked him to record the Brahms D Minor. Istomin refused. He felt not yet ready.
More antique sounds inform 1+1 = 3 (2000), a combination of Bach invention and heartfelt (plainchant) chorale. The Piano Album I concludes with Forty Chords for Mark on April First, a rather Brahms-intermezzo series of chords, autumnal and even final.
Six Friends (2006-2007) provide more brief homage to friends and colleagues. We are invited to share ten minutes with a select gathering, rather like one of Gertrude Stein’s soirees; and For Barbara could be Rorem’s answer to Mussorgsky’s “Promenade” theme, cross-fertilized by Vernon Duke. For Rosemary has a touch of Scriabin passing dissonance. Brahms and Ravel might have collaborated on the last two selections, For Don and Notes for Jerry; particularly the latter composer, whose clarity and rationale of musical line Rorem has always admired and emulated.