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Ned ROREM (b.1923)
Works for Choir and Organ
Arise Shine (1977) [3:40]
Impromptu (1990) [1:52]
Three Hymn Anthems (1955) [5:24]
Why and Because (1997) [3:59]
The Seventieth Psalm (1943) [3:43]
Seven Motets for the Church’s Year (1986) [14:46]
The Flight into Egypt (1997) [3:26]
Come, Pure Hearts (1974) [3:01]
Mercy and the Truth are Met (1947) [3:39]
Entreat me not (1997) [1:32]
A Sermon on Miracles (1947) [6:23]
Three Motets on poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1973) [8:58]
The Harvard University Choir
Murray Forbes Somerville (director)
Carson Cooman (organ)
Appleton Wind Ensemble (Seventieth Psalm)
Brattle Street Chamber Players (A Sermon)
rec. Methuen Memorial Hall, Harvard USA, 4th – 6th May 2003.
BLACK BOX BBM1102 [60:31]

 

The Black Box label is justifiably recognised for its programming of often hard-hitting modern music. This CD, on the other hand, will sit snugly next to collections rich in the choral works of Herbert Howells. It comes alongside a warm mini-‘el niño’-ette of issues with music by Pärt, Tavener and Copland.

Ned Rorem is known for his prolific output of songs, and his vocal writing here sounds completely natural and idiomatic as religious music. Rorem admits to being an atheist, and is quoted as saying in the excellent and informative booklet notes, ‘Why do I set these texts? Because I am commissioned ... A poet’s personal convictions have nothing to do with his quality.’

There is no denying the craftsmanship of these works, and with The Seventieth Psalm coming from the beginning of his career, it is clear that Rorem’s talent was always solidly reliable. This piece has almost inevitable Hindemith sonorities, with its wind band orchestration, descending bass lines and ornamented chorales.

The unaccompanied choral writing of Seven Motets and Three Hymn Anthems is uncomplicated, but has sufficient harmonic subtlety and variety to take it beyond the banal. While the music is always sensitive to the text, I did find the printed words in the booklet extremely useful – it may be me and my Englishness, but I find the Harvard University Choir hard to understand. Their singing is undemonstrative and at times quite beautiful, but either they or - I suspect - the recording make a muddy meal of textual articulation. This is a possible side-effect of trying to create a consistent choral sound around which such a variety of accompaniments appears.

A Sermon on Miracles is another youthful work, and has string orchestra accompaniment. The orchestra is a little distant and woolly, but the choral soloists are good. The music has an attractive pastoral character not unlike some of Tippett’s less challenging work, as do the organ filigrees of the opening Arise Shine. All of the other choral pieces have organ accompaniment, which supports or illustrates the choral writing to great effect.

The solo organ pieces derive from Rorem’s ‘Organbook III’ (Impromptu) or his Six Pieces for Organ, commissioned for the American Guild of Organists. These, like the choral works, are fairly restrained and approachable. Why and Because has ‘Mikrokosmos’ style contrary motion and some dashes of quasi polytonality. The Flight into Egypt has some nice close dissonances and shifting chorale moments. Entreat me not is a slow miniature which amounts to little more than an extended cadence, but has the pleasing quality of a short coda to something grander – like the fragment of a lost painting. The organ used is nothing special, but neither is it a gothic horror.

This CD makes for very pleasant listening. None of the works really leap out as world-shakers, but neither do they offend as lacking in substance or quality. Ned Rorem is one of those composers whose lack of neatly definable categorisation means that his name is of a lower profile than some, but it would be a shame to overlook these works for that reason. With a little more quality in the performances and recording this is the kind of CD which could have done for Black Box what Hildegard von Bingen did for Hyperion.

Dominy Clements

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