The Prince Consort - Ned Rorem - International Record Review

I became acquainted with Ned Rorem the diarist before I became acquainted with Rorem the composer. Not being enthusiastic about the diarist, unfortunately I delayed my initial explorations into Rorem's music for many years. Among the first of the Rorem discs to enter my collection, if not the first then was an LP of his songs - a low-risk proposition, because it was used and I spent only two dollars on it. All things considered, it was quite a bargain. Little did I know that a decade later I would be writing this review!

That LP, originally released by Columbia, and now reissued as a CD by a different label, contains 30 songs in performances by sopranos Phyllis Curtin and Gianna D'Angelo, mezzo Regina Sarfaty, tenor Charles Bressler and bass-baritone Donald Gramm, all ‘accompanied at the piano by the composer'. On this SACD, the singers and the accompanist have changed, but the concept remains the same, and it is a good one: if one has the resources, why not present a survey of a very prolific composer's songs using various singers with differing vocal ranges?

By now - the composer is well into his eighties and apparently still active - Rorem has composed more than 600 songs over more than six decades. As early as 1948, the Music Library Association hailed one of them, The Lordly Hudson, as the ‘best published song of the year' and Time magazine famously (Rorem modestly used the word ‘arbitrarily') identified him as the world's best song-writer. His taste in poets is excellent; those represented in this collection alone include Walt Whitman, W. H. Auden, Theodore Roethke, Frank O'Hara and Langston Hughes. Rorem unfailingly sets music to texts, not the other way around. Poetry is never made to lie in music's procrustean bed. As a result, Rorem's songs sound just as natural as the poems sound when they are simply spoken - in both senses of ‘simply'! There are never too many notes; the music fits the texts like a second skin.

Having the countertenor Tim Mead at their disposal, The Prince Consort take advantage by assigning several songs to him. Why not? It seems to be all the rage these days. (I suspect Rorem has noted the wry comedy inherent in consequently changing the pronoun ‘he' to ‘she' in the setting of Yeats's Do not love too long.) Overall, the five singers are a vocally attractive lot and truly sensitive both to the texts and to the ways in which Rorem's music illuminates those texts. Mead's voice is hauntingly epicene, as if some mythical creature had appeared to perform in a Rorem recital. The effect is arresting and after the initial shock one feels its validity. Soprano Anna Leese scales down what sounds like a powerful voice and manage to sound feminine, intimate and imposing all at once. Jennifer Johnston is the more appealing of the two women, however, with a voice that remains ideally focused in all registers, and with better diction. With its pleasantly ‘buzzy' timbre, tenor Andrew Staples projects personality, and his excursions into head-tone are ravishingly handsome. Finally, baritone Jacques Imbrailo sings with the sweetness and smoothness of clover honey, remaining just in the safe side of crooning. These performances cannily sequenced, are a model of how these songs should be sung; perhaps not the only model but certainly one about which I have no reservations. On the comparison disc, the singing is, not unexpectedly, more authentically ‘American', but in these songs that is not an important issue.

The Prince Consort are, in any case, rapidly becoming associated with Rorem. They presented the long-delayed European premiere in 2009 of the cycle Evidence of Things Not Seen and this year they will give the world premiere of a new piece written for them. Alisdair Hogarth, who is the Consort's founder, artistic director and pianist, makes a treasurable contribution to all of these performances. Rorem's piano writing never overwhelms the texts or the singing, yet it demands artistry and technical skill. Hogarth supplies it unstintingly. The engineering is a few feet from the performers. The effect is intimate and not at all oppressive.

I hope that The Prince Consort will extend their working relationship and spiritual affinity with Rorem and that there will be one (or more) sequels to this disc.

International Record Review
11 February 2010