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
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
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
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.