> Rorem Songs Farley 8559084 []: Classical Reviews- January 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Ned ROREM (b 1923)
Selected Songs

The Waking
Root Cellar
My Papa’s Waltz
I strolled across an open field
The Serpent
Night Crow
Little Elegy
The Nightingale
Lullaby of the woman of the Mountain
Love in a life
What if some little pain
Visit to St Elizabeth’s
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy evening
See how they love me
Now sleeps the crimson petal
I am Rose
Ask me no more
Early in the Morning
Such beauty as hurts to behold
Sally’s Smile
Youth, day, Old Age and Night
O you whom I often and silently come
Full of life now
As Adam early in the morning
Are you the new person?

Carole Farley (soprano)
Ned Rorem (piano)
Recorded Old North Church, Nantucket, MA, June 2000
NAXOS 8.559084 [57.36] Superbudget

2001 was a good year for Rorem’s songs. First came Susan Graham and Malcolm Martineau with their selection of 32 (Erato 8573-80222-2) and now here is the composer himself with one of his favoured sopranos (as is Susan Graham herself) Carole Farley. A number of songs overlap and intriguing points of comparison and departure are opened up.

Rorem has written over 250 songs and they never lack melodic interest or technical demands. Couched in a very personal language and exceptionally alive to the text, Rorem’s directness is never obvious and his settings emerge organically. His themes – those that he sets – are those of childhood, of love and loss and death – as well as jauntier things. Most of the texts are American but include Spenser, Hopkins and Tennyson. As expected his favoured Theodore Roethke features prominently. Several of the settings are of exceptional brevity. Influences, thoroughly absorbed, are evident; the admitted influences of Ravel, Satie and Poulenc, not forgetting the formative importance of the, himself Francophile, Virgil Thomson – Rorem was Thomson’s copyist. Added to these are elements of jazz colouring. His style can thus be seen as one of fluid mutation fused with an acute and individual response to language.

Comparison between Susan Graham and Carole Farley reveals some conspicuous differences of approach. In Orchids with their more sympathetic and cushioned sound Graham and Martineau are slower, Martineau spreads his chords more fully. Whereas Graham’s voice is superbly articulated, Farley, by contrast, plays more with the words, elongating her vowels, flirting with her intonation. Listen to her use of the word "Damp" here - it is plosive, heavily vowelled with an impersonation or acted delivery, immensely theatrical. The following song, the Serpent, emphasises, reinforces and amplifies their wildly differing approaches. Graham sings beautifully, lightly touching on the humour, revealing it through the lieder singer’s subtlety. Farley is again jazzier, fleeter, blowsier – in a word, more obvious. She seizes on words and savages them – listen to her violent assault on the word "note" for example. Furthermore she is never afraid to coarsen her tone in the interests of full musical-literary effect.

Farley uses her instincts to commendable effect in songs such as Spenser’s What if some little pain – where Rorem hints at a ground bass - evidenced by her breathy "doth" in the concluding line that shows her visceral and intelligent response to textual ambiguities. Certainly this could also be construed as over-emphatic by those unsympathetic to such an interpretation. In Tennyson’s Now sleeps the crimson petal the disparity in approach becomes most marked. Graham takes 4.19, Farley 2.51. No one wants to judge music by the stop-watch but there is a revealing gulf between them – not surprisingly Graham is the more elliptical, the more reflective, the more languidly sensuous, Farley and the composer the more active and vibrantly pliant. Elsewhere the disparities are consistent. Graham is much less inclined to lean on words and bend them to her will. Farley will buckle a line if necessary. Graham will seldom compromise her vocal integrity; Farley will break her voice, will emphasise extremes of register and of volume. Whereas Graham sings with arching simplicity sometimes Farley is not artless enough. The gains of Farley’s approach are ones of immediacy and directness, qualities that mirror Rorem’s own compositional traits; it illustrates just what attracted him to the texts in the first place. To blacken and cover words, as Farley does, is to illuminate a layer of meaning often lost – but it comes at a price.

One final example will suffice – Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. At the word "miles" Farley suddenly withdraws her tone whereas Graham lengthens the word slightly, without altering dynamics within the line. The former is a break, the latter an arch.

Both Farley and Graham are so different in approach to the music that it would be no bad thing to possess both recordings. Naxos’s sound is more airless and constricted than the bloom accorded to Graham and Martineau. Don’t forego the pleasure of Rorem’s pianism in his own music. My own preference is strongly for Graham but it would be good to open the windows and feel the bracing air of Carole Farley once in a while.

Jonathan Woolf

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