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Daily album review 2: Ned Rorem piano miniatures lead straight to a quiet centre

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Ned Rorem at 80 in 2003 (Christian Steiner photo).
Ned Rorem at 80 in 2003 (Christian Steiner photo).

American composer Ned Rorem, who turned 90 a week ago, is a lot like his music: plain on the surface, but with a lot going on underneath. A new album of piano miniatures underlines this juxtaposition in 51 minutes that celebrate that elusive, quiet centre of being.

New York City pianist Carolyn Enger has recorded 33 of these solo works as if they are great masterpieces, laying out the music with tremendous care.

Rorem’s great love of the art song — of any identifiable melody, really — is crystal clear in these little pieces, most of which are written in two voices: a melody with counterpoint or a melody supported by harmonic progression.

Only here the piano is both singer and accompanist, a task Enger makes sound deceptively easy.

albumThe works in Enger’s recording (made at the Manhattan School of Music way back in 2009), part of Naxos’ American Classics series, are 27 pieces from Piano Album I (composed between 1978 and 2001) and all of Six Friends (2006-07).

Most are quick sketches, like the pencil or charcoal studies of a visual artist, that later found their way into larger works, usually for other instruments.

Instead of a bottle of wine or a bouquet of flowers, Rorem would offer these sketches as little gifts to favourite people — most regularly to his partner Jim Holmes, who died in 1999.

The album notes, although not extensive, provide a lot more background. But the real joy is in listening — really listening — in a setting where nothing will stand in the way of this music’s simple beauty and the delicate, sensitive voice of its interpreter.

It’s like an afternoon at the spa, without the gunky herbal wrap.

Check out all the details here.

This is a typical piece from Piano Album I, “Serenade for Two Paws” — Rorem’s inscription: “On Christmas with love from Ned. For Jim to teach to Sonny [their Bichon Frisé] on rainy afternoons” — played at twice Enger’s speed by Adam Tendler:

John Terauds


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