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Ned ROREM (b.1923)
Symphony No. 1 (1950) [22.11]
Symphony No. 2 (1956) [22.20]
Symphony No. 3 (1958) [24.19]
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/José Serebrier
rec. The Lighthouse, Poole, 8-9 Jan 2003


Ned Rorem was born in Richmond, Indiana on 23 October 1923. His teachers included Wagenaar, Honegger and Virgil Thomson. From 1949 to 1957 he moved to France. As composer-in-residence at the Universities of Buffalo and Utah commissions and performing opportunities came his way. His five movement Third Symphony was written in April 1958 in New York. In his programme notes for the work he writes that the work was "entirely thought up and written down in a three week period during the last of seven summers at the chateau of the Vicomtesse de Noailles in Hyères which I miss to a point of anguish and may never see again."

When Jose Serebrier writes, in his programme notes, that the Utah Symphony LP recording of the work (Turnabout TV-S34447) was not transferred to CD he is wrong. In 1994 Vox issued VoxBox 11 60212 which included both the Rorem and its LP companion, Schuman's Seventh, together with Siegfried Landau's superb version of the Hanson Sixth Symphony - the latter having six movements to the Rorem's five. The Rorem work has nothing of greyness about it. Its idiom fits without undue comfort within the bounds set by Harris, Hanson, Poulenc, Ravel and Diamond (as in the Fourth Symphony). The work has a dreamy, languid, strolling quality lifted by the intemperate almost roistering brassiness of the two allegro movements (II and V). The yawing bell-like slow swing of the first movement is picked up in the seething confidently joyful singing action of the finale. Bernstein, who premiered the piece on 16 April 1959, must have loved it. Such a shame he did not add it to his roster of American symphony recordings to join Thompson 2, Diamond 4 and Schuman 3. Mind you the same could be said of another work, stronger I think than the Rorem, the Hanson Sixth. How does the Serebrier fare against the 1970s Abravanel version? For a start the acoustics are better by miles. The only real downside technically speaking is that the brass have artificially vivid impact in the Vox version which is missing in the Naxos disc. Serebrier bustles just as much as Abravanel in both allegros (II and V) and captures superbly the dreamy nostalgia of the largo and 'palely loitering' andante. These movements (III and IV) have a dream-filmic quality which is rendered with additional amplitude and plangency in Naxos's fully digital sound.

The First Symphony is in a more conventional four movements. It is lithe and flowing, contented, bathed in April sunshine, idyllically self-communing through the flute and oboe solos in the largo and light-hearted in the final allegro. The first movement was written in New York in 1948 and the remaining three in Morocco eighteen months later. It is good to have this high spirited yet sensitive symphony at last in good sound rather than having to rely on the tape from which I first heard the piece - an aircheck of a 1950s broadcast by the National Gallery Orchestra conducted by Richard Bales.

The three movement Second Symphony was written in 1956 in New York City at the commission of Nikolai Sokoloff who conducted the premiere in La Jolla (the very place for which Martinů wrote his Sinfonietta of the same name). This is a work in which darker shadows appear - darker than both its companions. It seems to swirl and has some sharply defined rhythmic effects in the Americana tradition of Schuman (those snare drum rimshots again!) as well as some lovely melodic effects as at 8.03 in the long first movement. The second movement, a Tranquillo, touches on the same heartland as the andantino and the largo of the First Symphony. This nostalgic mood is shared with such core Americana as Hugo Friedhofer's score for The Best Years of Our Lives and sections of Barber's Knoxville. The final allegro ruffles and bustles along with touches of Roy Harris (3 and 7) - a sort of Stateside equivalent of the last movement of Moeran's Sinfonietta. Once again this disc now happily replaces my stressed cassette of a broadcast by the CBC Vancouver Symphony conducted by Charles Avison.

This disc has the same collectors' symmetry as the Naxos Creston disc which also has that composer's first three symphonies.

These are not thunderously protesting symphonies but neither are they trivial lightweights. Rorem's compass takes in nostalgia, joyous athletic activity and a certain tenderness of expression all couched in language without dissonance but always rife with the flavour of originality.

Rob Barnett


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