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Ned ROREM (b. 1923)
The Auden Songs (1989) [33:49]
(The Shield of Achilles; Lady, weeping at the crossroads; Epitaph on a Tyrant; Lay your sleeping head, my love; But I can't; Yes, we are going to suffer; Nocturne)
The Santa Fe Songs Ė complete collection (1979-80) [28:58]
(Santa Fe; Opus 101; Any other time; Sonnet; Coming down the stairs; He never knew; El Musico; The Wintry-Mind; Water Hyacinths; Moving Leaves; Yes I hear them; The Sowers)
Christopher Lemmings (tenor); Sara Fulgoni (soprano); Chamber Domaine
rec. Potton Hall, Suffolk, January, April 2005. DDD
world première recordings
BLACK BOX BBM1104 [63:17]



Much is made in the notes to this recording about the novelty of British musicians performing American music. Yet Ned Rorem himself spent his seminal years in France, and W.H. Auden so broke with the idea of nationality that he lived most of his adult life outside England. Composers may be influenced by folk music, but good composers are not slaves to genre. In our modern age, national stereotypes arenít meaningful.

Hearing the disc itself, Iím not convinced that the performersí nationality has much to do with their work. Sara Fulgoniís talents in particular have gained her plenty of attention internationally. Roremís settings of the Santa Fe Songs were a commission for the Santa Fe Music Festival, which is large and nationally regarded. The poet Witter Bynner was no insular regional poet. His connection with Santa Fe was that heíd lived in New Mexico for many years, but was a cosmopolitan who counted D.H. and Frieda Lawrence among his friends and moved in the artist communities of the South-West. A native New Yorker, he had also lived in China and Japan, learning the languages and cultures thoroughly. He became a leading translator of Chinese and Japanese verse. To this day, Bynnerís translations of the Tao Te Ching and other classics are standard texts.

The poems Rorem set are well observed vignettes of human life. When an American setting is depicted, as in Santa Fe, the poem is essentially about Mexican subculture. Roremís settings are rich and expressive. The piano plays a simple, steady pulse against an exotic long line of violin, viola and cello in Opus 101. Itís almost oriental. Yet it aptly reflects the line "He not only plays one note but holds another note away from it". Even more deliberately "oriental" is Roremís decoration of Sonnet. He hovers into the pentatonic on the line "beneath whose mould we too shall one day be spent", reinforcing the imagery with a keening violin line against the warmly lyrical melody. It reminds me strongly of the "orientalism" of Fauré or Maurice Delage, modern music playing with exotic themes. Rorem recognized Bynnerís achievements.

Water Hyacinths is a soliloquy for unaccompanied voice, framed by dark-hued cello. In contrast, the nervous discords and whispered, breathless singing in Yes I hear them show a completely different side of both poet and composer. Iíve followed Fulgoniís career for many years and enjoy her work. But sheís up against formidable competition in Susan Graham, whose Songs of Ned Rorem were a huge success a few years ago. Thereís really no comparison. Grahamís version of Sonnet, The Wintry Mind, Opus 101 and The Sowers is really in an altogether more exalted league, clearer, more defined, more natural and warm.

The Auden songs are certainly much more of a muchness, in the sense that most employ a jerky, vocal line which rises and descends within a phrase in a strange sort of counter rhythm of its own, against the verse. It does capture the edginess of Audenís personality, but thereís more to Auden than that. Rorem thus shapes a mysterious, meandering violin introduction for Lay your sleeping head, my love. It becomes a gentle, melodic plaint for solo voice curling up and down the scale. The melody is taken up by piano, playing note by note, with an almost childlike simplicity. This is a beautiful song, which Lemmings manages well, but, as with the Santa Fe Songs, there are other tenors who could turn it into magic. The song lies at the heart of the cycle, dividing the jerky songs with three more where the dissonances are mixed with longer, more keening lines.

The only reason, alas, for getting this recording is to hear the Santa Fe Songs and Auden Songs as whole cycles. I suspect that a different performance of the Auden Songs would highlight the subtle differences between them. The notes in the booklet describe the Santa Fe Songs in comparison to the Auden cycle as "the last word in laid back Americana" ... "looser and more ambulatory". Iím not so sure. Its very contrasts give it spice, and an awareness of Bynnerís non-parochial personality adds to an appreciation of Roremís musical intentions. In short, a disappointing recording not helped in the least by the booklet notes.

Anne Ozorio

 



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