American Beauties from Bournemouth

0 of 5 stars

Chichester Psalms *
On the Town – Three Dance Episodes
On the Waterfront – Symphonic Suite

Thomas Kelly (treble) *
Bournemouth Symphony Chorus *
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
Marin Alsop

Recorded in April 2003 at The Lighthouse, Poole Centre for the Arts, Dorset

NAXOS 8.559177

49 minutes

Symphony No.1
Symphony No.2
Symphony No.3

Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
José Serebrier

Recorded in January 2003 at The Lighthouse, Poole Centre for the Arts, Dorset

NAXOS 8.559149

69 minutes


Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: October 2003
CD No: See above
Duration: See above

Ned Rorem turned 80 just a few days ago on 23 October 2003. Leonard Bernstein would have been 85 this August. The two are linked here not just through splendid CDs from the Bournemouth Symphony but through Bernstein conducting the premiere, in New York, of Rorem’s Third Symphony, a lyrical and punchy work that stands high in the American Symphony canon.

There’s an epic, filmic quality to Rorem’s symphonic music, also ebullience, wit and shapely lyricism. In No.3 there’s a nod to Broadway, a suggestion of open plains, simple and very touching melodies, and virtuoso use of the orchestra; the final movement reaches for the sky.

It’s good to have Rorem’s three numbered symphonies, all written in the 1950s, on one CD. The first two, recorded here for the first time, are also works of distinction. No.1, in a compact four-movement design, has all the wonderful optimism and outreach of the best American symphonic music; the second movement ’Andantino’ is a typically-beautiful ’song without words, a touching reminder of Rorem’s love of French culture, while the succeeding ’Largo’ explores darker expression. The finale is bright and breezy.

The Second Symphony evolves a long-spun string melody into faster-moving material to sustain an expansive structure. Rorem’s kinship with Samuel Barber is noted and then heightened with the melancholy ’Tranquillo’ that follows. The similarly brief finale begins with timpani tattoo, introduces the piano, and hurtles in angular steps to a resolute conclusion. Maybe the big first movement should stand alone as a one-movement work leaving the ’Tranquillo’ as an attractive miniature.

Rorem’s vividly communicative music finds the Bournemouth Symphony both committed and confident under the enthusiastic José Serebrier who revels in Rorem’s wide palette of colour and generous invention.

Similar excellence informs the Bernstein CD under the BSO’s Principal Conductor Marin Alsop who writes a touching note on her Bernstein memories. On the Waterfront was Bernstein’s only foray into film music. It’s a fine score that conveys urban tensions and human aspirations. Bernstein’s harmonic and instrumental incision is telling and atmospheric (not least in the use of a saxophone). Alsop keeps the suite nicely on the boil and charts atmospheres and emotions with a sure touch.

If the fun and games of the three sailors on New York shore-leave is a little staid, Chichester Psalms is given a joyful and touching performance with real rhythmic exuberance and heartfelt expression; the chorus is uninhibited and Thomas Kelly is uncommonly secure in his contribution to “The Lord is my shepherd” (Psalm 23), very movingly done, and the violent contrast of “Why do the nations rage” brings some nimbly articulate work from the orchestra. A far shorter gap between the second and third movements would have helped maintain tension.

A few small reservations about the sound, a little strident in the Rorem, a tad restricted in the Bernstein, are incidental given the quality of the music and the lively renditions. Two veritable bargains!

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