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Ned ROREM (b. 1923)
Six Songs for High Voice [15’ 38"]
Last Poems of Wallace Stevens (1972)* [26’42"]
Ariel (1971)** [16’33"]
Jack l’éventreur (1953) [5’34"]
Ode (1953) [1’42"]
Alleluia (1946) [2’46"]
Laura Aikin (soprano); *Gerhard Zank (cello); ** Nicola Jürgensen (clarinet); Donald Sulzen (piano)
Rec. Bayerischer Rundfunk, Studio 2, 7-11 February, 2003 DDD
ORFEO C 620 041 A [66’19"]


It was through Susan Graham’s superb 1999 recital for Erato (8573-80222-2) that I first really became aware of Ned Rorem as a composer of songs. Since then Naxos have issued a very fine recital by Carole Farley, accompanied by the composer himself (8.559084). There have been other CD releases of Rorem’s music, not least the Naxos recording of his three symphonies which was one of my 2003 Recordings of the Year.

Now we have another equally welcome CD of his songs, though one which will be perhaps more stretching to the listener. I ought to own up straightaway to one problem I have in considering these songs. Two of the cycles here recorded, Last Poems of Wallace Stevens and Ariel set poems respectively by Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) and Sylvia Plath (1932-1963). I confess that I find the poetry very difficult, even abstruse. Thus it’s hard for me to know to what extent Rorem has been successful and sensitive in setting the texts. The only thing that I can say is that in my experience I have found him generally to be a most responsive and perceptive word setter. I see no reason to suppose that his touch would have deserted him in these cycles.

The other thing to say about these two cycles is that the music itself is more demanding on the listener and on the performers than much of his earlier work. The music is most certainly tonal but in general the lines are much more angular. They feature wide intervals and the harmonic palette is more overtly dissonant. The collector who is well versed in Rorem’s music will have little problem with this, I daresay. However the recitals by Susan Graham and Carole Farley offer a rather easier introduction to the newcomer to Rorem’s art.

The Stevens cycle adds a cello to the usual piano accompaniment, and to telling effect. Indeed, this cycle of seven poems includes a Prelude and an Interlude (after the fifth song) for the instrumentalists alone. The whole cycle plays without a break. I think the conclusion, starting with the Interlude and encompassing the final two poems, is especially fine. The Interlude itself is superb, consisting of slow, passionate music which leads seamlessly into ‘Of Mere Being’. The very last song of all, ‘A Clear Day and No Memories’ is a splendid, profound creation and, like everything else on the disc it receives a first rate performance.

The settings of Sylvia Plath are accompanied by piano and clarinet. The inclusion of the clarinet seems inspired. Its distinctive timbres contribute significantly to the palette of colours at Rorem’s disposal. For the most part these are dark texts and they are treated accordingly, though there’s overt beauty in Rorem’s setting of the penultimate poem, ‘Poppies in October’. The last song in the cycle, ‘Lady Lazarus’ is strong meat indeed, a bitter, nightmarish text or so I understand it; see my comment above. It is given music to match. This song, like its companions, is clearly very demanding on Laura Aikin and her partners but they surmount all the challenges set by the composer.

The opening cycle, Six Songs for High Voice, which was written in the 1950s, is equally challenging for the singer, albeit in a different way. As the title suggests these are songs in which the tessitura often lies dauntingly high. This is especially true of the first and last songs and, understandably, clarity of diction, elsewhere commendably clear, is sometimes a casualty. I liked the songs very much though one feature of the last song disturbed me. Its first 47 seconds consist of what I can only describe as a coloratura cadenza for the soloist before the song itself is launched. Later (track 6, 2’38" – 3’06") there’s a similar passage. These must serve some purpose but, with the greatest respect, I can’t for the life of me see what it is. For me these passages hold up the flow of the song.

But that’s a very minor quibble ... and who am I to make it, anyway? All the songs on this CD are of very high quality though some do no not reveal their secrets easily. Everything on the disc will repay careful listening. Ned Rorem has been very well served indeed by the artists, who give dedicated, convincing and expert performances. Laura Aikin has a lovely, pure voice with plenty of power when needed and she clearly has a strong feeling for this music.

The recorded sound is excellent. There are notes in English and German. The texts of the songs are given in the sung language only. This means English, except for the last three songs, two of which are in French while the third consists solely – and inventively - of the single word, "Alleluia". There are a couple of blemishes in the booklet where the presentation of the text of the first Stevens poem is confusing and there is no title heading for the Ariel cycle. However, once one has sorted out what the issue is, it’s not a major concern.

Ned Rorem is a considerable composer and his songs probably represent the peak of his achievement. This fine CD is a most welcome addition to the catalogue and is strongly recommended.

John Quinn

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