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CD Review

Ned Rorem

Naxos 8.559149
  • Symphony #1 (1950)
  • Symphony #2 (1956)
  • Symphony #3 (1958)
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/José Serebrier
Naxos 8.559149 69:22
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Summary for the Busy Executive: What's not to like?

Rorem is a composer who's played with the odds against him. Despite a fairly dissolute life – with self-destructive alcoholism and promiscuous sex prominent, at least for a number of years – he's made it to the age of eighty. I would also say, despite the lack of a distinctive style, he has had a successful career as a composer – both professionally and artistically. He composed tonal, non-developmental music at a time when both of these things among the tastemakers put his music down as inconsequential. Persistence, a genius for publicity, and a waspish, witty pen that could return better than it got didn't hurt him, but most important he wrote music that both sounded good and said something worth saying. Consequently, when critical trends turned, Rorem had a body of solid work awaiting rediscovery, or even discovery. For example, his first two symphonies get their first commercial recordings, roughly fifty years after he wrote them.

Rorem discounts his abilities as a symphonist, always warning the listener not to expect, essentially, Brahms, but I think him over-scrupulous. The first symphony shows someone who can, if he chooses, work in classical forms. The opening sounds of the piece call to mind the American neo-classical symphonists of the Thirties and Forties, but very quickly Rorem gives us something new with these materials – what I'd call a lyrical impulse, compelling and surprisingly moving. We don't get a knock-off Somebody Else, despite shared materials. One senses a lack of interest in Germanic argument but not slop. One hones in on a sensibility fastidious, elegant, slightly acidic, even occasionally sensual, and above all on a compulsion to spin out the longest song one can. When I heard the divertissement second movement, I said to myself, "Very French." The liner notes (by Serebrier) mention Faure, which is as accurate a locus as any – maybe Faure harmonically updated by Roussel, Ravel, Poulenc, or Piston.

The meat of the piece comes with the slow third movement, as it would in most Romantic symphonies. The French sound, trim and spare, a bit reticent and reminiscent of a Satie gymnopedie, nevertheless brings in something new and personal to the composer – that meditative, slightly bluesy lyricism of some of his best songs, like "The Lordly Hudson." The more-or-less rondo finale alternates between high wit and rapturous singing. The thing zips along with near-animal energy. One outstanding, delightful surprise occurs when Rorem gives the main rondo theme to the tuneless percussion. I also sense the "shadow symphonies" of Mozart's Nos. 39 and 40 in the background. Certain quick rhythms and the shape of the first lyrical theme bring Mozart to mind. I have no idea whether Rorem did this consciously. Overall, the symphony has no deadwood, nothing of the routine in it. I love this work.

Six years later, the second symphony goes its own way, with no referent to classical forms at all. Structurally, it's very odd indeed, with a first movement way more than twice as long as the remaining movements together. Serebrier gives a very good, brief account of the first movement's progress, and I won't repeat it here. However, Serebrier does convey the impression that Rorem merely puts one note after the other. Actually, it's very tightly written, with essentially two themes (or, more accurately, thematic shapes) varied and even combined for more than fifteen minutes. Rhetorically, it is one long blossoming and covers a wide expressive range, from contemplative singing to lively dance to grand (but not grandiose) declamation. The second movement shows some affinities to Coplandian pastoralism (with a prominent phrase rather close to one in the Lincoln Portrait). Though short, it's gorgeous and, strangely enough, very satisfying as a slow movement. So a slow movement doesn't have to be long to be good. The jumping finale is "big-shoulder" music, with piano standing out in the overall orchestral fabric. Despite some wonderful ideas, including a jazzy section, this movement does seem short-winded. Nevertheless, the work as a whole commands both love and respect. I hate the fact that I couldn't hear this work for over forty years. Indeed, both works have revised my estimate of Rorem's work way upwards.

premièred by Bernstein and New York, the third symphony was subsequently recorded by Abravanel and the Utah Symphony, an LP I've had for a long time. The first two movements of the work strike me as expert, rather than inspired. The first movement is based entirely on a motive of falling thirds. Serebrier's liner notes claim it's also a passacaglia, but I don't hear it myself. The second movement is a quick and jazzy piece of Bernsteiniana, perhaps a tip of the hat to the commissioner. The symphony really picks up, however, at the third movement, a quirky bit of slightly acidic lyricism that seems a Rorem fingerprint. Rorem calls it a "short passionate page about somnambulism." There is indeed a somewhat eerie quality to it, even emphasized in its placement in the work, before another, more substantial slow movement. The andante sings beautifully, but compared to its predecessor, a little conventionally. The finale displays a grown-up wit – a kind of sonata-rondo, where two subjects (one bubbly, the other singing) alternate. It turns out very quickly that the "two" subjects are really one, simply varied in character and tempo.

Serebrier champions these works as well as anybody, including the composer, can expect. They force the listener to re-examine the received portrait of Rorem as primarily a song and choral composer. Despite the composer's protests, he is a tremendous symphonic talent. Serebrier and the Bournemouth players are especially good at generating exciting rhythm and achieving clear texture (the two often go hand in hand). This is one of Naxos' best, both for repertoire and for performance.

Copyright © 2008, Steve Schwartz

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