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Ned ROREM (b. 1923)
Symphony No 1 (1950)* [22í11"]
Symphony No 2 (1956)* [22í20"]
Symphony No 3 (1958) [24í19"]
* World première recordings
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by José Serebrier
Recorded in The Lighthouse, Poole, Dorset, UK, 8-9 January 2003

There are two things you need to know about American composer, Ned Rorem: on 23 October 2003 he will celebrate his 80th birthday; and he writes wonderful music. This Naxos disc, the third they have issued of his music, is a splendid birthday tribute.

I first got to know Roremís music through Susan Grahamís outstanding Erato disc of his songs (a "must-buy" for anyone who cares about art songs, if you can still find a copy). Since then Iíve acquired a good number of other CDs of his music and with each purchase my admiration has increased. In particular he seems to me to be one of the very finest twentieth-century composers of songs with a superb melodic gift allied to a discerning eye for a text. He has published a large number of songs, including perhaps his crowning achievement in the genre, Evidence of Things not seen, a richly varied collection of 36 songs for four singers and two pianists, designed to form an entire eveningís entertainment. (Thereís an excellent recording on New World Records 80575).

Despite my interest in Roremís music two of the symphonies recorded here were new to me. Thatís not surprising since not only have the first two symphonies not been recorded before but also, as we learn in the notes, both have been largely neglected since their first performances. The same is largely true of the Third but at least there have been two recordings, one by Maurice Abravanel on Vox (which I have not heard) and a recording of the first performance by Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic (though that recording is not easily accessible since itís only available as part of the NYPOís substantial boxed set, "An American Celebration"). All praise, therefore, to José Serebrier and to Naxos for rescuing these works from obscurity. How good, also, to find a British orchestra involved and doing such a fine job.

Rorem spent several years (1949-1958) living in France and a Gallic cultivation and elegance informs much of his music. (Iím sure Iím not being original in thinking of him as the American Poulenc.) However, as is clear from the excellent notes accompanying this CD, even though the symphonies date from the period of his French sojourn quite a lot of the music was written in the USA, including at least the first movement of Number 1 and the whole of Number 2.

The three works share a number of characteristics. First, as will be seen from the timings at the head of this review, none of them is overlong. Rorem is a succinct writer who says what he has to say, whether in music or in words, and moves on. Thus with the exception of the first movement of the Second symphony (which is just over 15 minutes long) no single movement lasts for longer than about seven minutes and several are only two or three minutes in duration. Secondly, Roremís music is emphatically tonal. His harmonies are often piquant but a very strong melodic impulse runs through all his music and is certainly well to the fore on this disc. Thirdly, these three works are all highly approachable and often very entertaining Ė though not for one minute superficial.

The First symphony is in four movements and is a real charmer, representing an extremely confident start to a symphonic career. I was bowled over by the whole piece but I especially enjoyed the middle two movements. The first of these, marked Andantino, is aptly described by José Serebrier in his notes as a "pastoral setting in the Fauré tradition." Strings and winds are to the fore in this movement, which is graceful and lyrical from start to finish. But the succeeding Largo is, if anything, even finer. In it Rorem taps a rich seam of melody with prominent and hugely rewarding lines for flute, oboe and strings. After the lyrical repose of these movements the dancing finale is much more extrovert but even here, when the music is moving much more quickly, it still sings.

The Second symphony opens with an unusually spacious movement, which takes up no less than 15í22" of the whole work. There is a very long introduction, dominated by a long-breathed, spacious and expressive theme, which lasts for some 2 Ĺ minutes. It is not until 6í24" that the tempo quickens into a vivacious, playful allegro. Here lively rhythms underpin yet more fertile melody. The whole movement is well laid out for the orchestra (indeed, all three symphonies are resourcefully scored.) The brief second movement, marked Tranquillo, is a song without words in all but name. A lovely, simple theme opens on flute and then passes to violins with clarinet. This movement is a little gem, relaxed and at ease with itself. The equally short finale is another dance-like episode in which percussion are prominent (an effect enhanced by the inclusion at this point of a piano). It makes a bright and breezy end to another very enjoyable symphony.

The five-movement Third was the only one of the three that Iíd heard before, in a live recording of the first performance on 18 April 1959. This took place in Carnegie Hall under the characteristically dynamic direction of Leonard Bernstein. Since Rorem is on record as having been delighted by that performance this Bernstein account must be regarded as a benchmark. In some ways I prefer it to the newcomer but Iím pretty sure that, if he has heard it the composer will be pretty happy with this Bournemouth performance too. Itís a very public piece and is scored for a large orchestra including a vast array of percussion.

The first movement is a well-constructed passacaglia, much of which is rather subdued in tone; one feels that energy is being held back. Release comes in the brief second movement which follows without a break and which Rorem has described elsewhere as "like hot jazz." This movement was originally a two-piano piece written some eight years earlier. It has a really percussive nature with driving rhythms. It sounds to me like real New York City music and it is very well played here though Bernstein is even more daring at what sounds like a dizzying speed (though his performance is only a mere 16 seconds quicker.) The short third movement is a Largo and it is said to be Roremís favourite of the five. Itís another piece that emphasises his credentials as a melodist and songwriter. Itís followed by another slow movement, an andante which Serebrier calls a "pensive pastoral setting." Itís an oasis of tranquillity, scored with great subtlety and refinement. An especially effective touch occurs when the xylophone tops off the texture as the main climax builds (track 4, from 3í28"). In this movement Bernstein is a bit more urgent than Serebrier, less the dreamer. On balance I prefer his approach (though his rival is very fine) for I find that Bernsteinís speed imparts a greater sense of flow. Also with him the central climax is even stronger. The finale, described by Rorem as " a long and fast Rondo, in itself a Concerto for Orchestra", is a real tour de force and gets a sparkling performance from the BSO even if they canít quite rival the sheer gusto and panache of Bernsteinís New Yorkers. Even here, amid the orchestral fireworks, thereís room for another generous melody (track 5 from 4í43") and at this point I think the slightly easier tempo adopted by Serebrier pays dividends for he is able to make more of the big tune. The work ends riotously.

These are splendid works, full of good humour and rich in melodic invention. I fear I havenít begun to do justice to them in my descriptions and I can only urge you to buy this CD and sample them for yourself. The performances are winning and are presented in excellent sound. The notes by Serebrier himself are first rate and include telling comments on all three works by Ned Rorem.

In the last few months Naxos have done Rorem proud with two other first rate CDs, one of his chamber music and one of his songs in which Rorem himself accompanies Carole Farley. I do hope theyíll keep up this excellent work; some more songs would be great, as would a disc of his fine choral music. In the meantime this excellent CD is a first rate birthday tribute. As the year progresses Iím slowly assembling a shortlist of recordings of the year and Iím certain this disc will be one of them. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

John Quinn

see also review by Rob Barnett and Paul Shoemaker

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