Songs of Ned Rorem – Susan Graham (Erato)

0 of 5 stars

Early in the Morning
The Serpent
Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal
Opus 101
I strolled Across an Open Field
To a Young Girl
Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair
For Poulenc
Little Elegy
Look Down, Fair Moon
O You Whom I Often and Silently Come
I will always love you
The Tulip Tree
The Wintry Mind
I am Rose
The Lordly Hudson
O Do Not Love Too Long
Far – Far – Away
For Susan
A Journey
Sometimes With One I Love
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
Do I love you more than a day?
Ferry Me Across the Water
The Sowers
That Shadow, My Likeness

Susan Graham (mezzo-soprano) &
Malcolm Martineau (piano)
with Ensemble Oriol [Christiane Plath (violin), Sebastian Gottschick (viola) & Friedeman Ludwig (cello)]

Recorded in September 1999 in Studio Teldec, Berlin

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: February 2004
CD No: ERATO 8573-80222-2

Although released in 2000, this a suitable juncture at which to re-consider this Erato CD, given that Ned Rorem celebrated his 80th-birthday recently, on 23rd October 2003.

He remains active as a composer and performer, and has been prolific in his output – both musical and literary – with symphonies, concertos, operas, chamber and choral works sitting alongside literally hundreds of songs and song-cycles. Most significant in the latter category is the cycle of 36 songs – Evidence of Things Not Seen.

It is probably true to say that his conservative (definitely with a small ’c’) language has proven more widely appreciated of late, than earlier on in his career, when serialism and radicalism were the accepted faces of contemporary music. Ned Rorem’s musical vocabulary – at least as evinced in the songs recorded here – is tonal, lyrical and easily accessible. There are hints of modality and an almost folk-like charm, but what is immediately apparent is the appropriate match between words and music, and in this respect at least, one might point to the songs of Benjamin Britten (who also set – very differently – Tennyson’s Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal) as being comparable.

Frequently, Rorem seizes upon a feature of the text and elucidates this with apposite musical illustration – The Serpent being a good case in point, where the piano vividly suggests the snakelike slithering. Elsewhere, the accompaniment is chordal, as in the rather touching and expressive Love, allowing the voice to meander freely and eloquently above.

Indeed, Rorem’s writing for the voice is grateful and mellifluous, and Susan Graham responds accordingly. Her voice seems perfectly suited to this repertoire and she avoids sounding coy or knowing, as can sometimes – inexplicably – be the case with American singers in songs by American composers. She communicates the sense of the poems, without over-exaggeration, and her line, phrasing and intonation are unimpeachable. Malcolm Martineau contributes sensitive accompaniments, perfectly complimenting Graham’s artistry.

It was a good idea to include four of the twelve Santa Fe Songs, which are accompanied by a piano quartet. The responsive playing of Ensemble Oriol is eloquence itself, with the contribution of violist Sebastian Gottschick being particularly telling and noteworthy. The more diverse palette of these songs points up the only possible reservation concerning the disc as a whole, which is perhaps a little unvaried in mood to be best digested in one sitting.

Certainly there is contrast – the spirited Alleluia, in a Bernstein-like 7/8 time, and the really lovely setting of Christina Rossetti’s Ferry Me Across the Water, for instance – but there are many songs which sound very similar when heard directly one after another.

But one can admire the variegated sources that Rorem has selected and relish his affectionate response to them. Some of the songs are extremely short but, paradoxically, one does not feel ’short-changed’ by them, so illuminating – and affecting – are Rorem’s settings.

Competition in this field is not great, but Rorem himself is the pianist on a Naxos disc with Carole Farley, but whilst there is some (not a lot) overlap of songs, truth to tell, Susan Graham has the more engaging – and, frankly, attractive – voice.

The tone of the booklet note is rather gushing and less than ideally informative, but neither this, nor other minor reservations, should deter anyone from acquiring this captivating release.

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