ROREM: Symphony No. 3 (1958). Symphony No. 1 (1950). Symphony No. 2 (1956).
Bournemouth Symphony Orch/José Serebrier, cond.
NAXOS 8.559149 (B) (DDD) TT: 69:22
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Rorem is a composer who's played with the odds against him. Despite a
fairly dissolute life - with self-destructive alcoholism and promiscuous
sex prominent, at least for a number of years - he's made it to the age
of eighty. I would also say, despite the lack of a distinctive style,
he has had a successful career as a composer - both professionally and
artistically. He composed tonal, non-developmental music at a time when
both of these things among the tastemakers put his music down as inconsequential.
Persistence, a genius for publicity, and a waspish, witty pen that could
return better than it got didn't hurt him, but most important he wrote
music that both sounded good and said something worth saying. Consequently,
when critical trends turned, Rorem had a body of solid work awaiting
rediscovery, or even discovery. For example, his first two symphonies
get their first commercial recordings, roughly fifty years after he wrote
Rorem discounts his abilities as a symphonist, always warning the listener
not to expect, essentially, Brahms, but I think him over-scrupulous.
The first symphony shows someone who can, if he chooses, work in classical
forms. The opening sounds of the piece call to mind the American neo-classical
symphonists of the Thirties and Forties, but very quickly Rorem gives
us something new with these materials -- what I'd call a lyrical impulse,
compelling and surprisingly moving. We don't get a knock-off Somebody
Else, despite shared materials. One senses up a lack of interest in Germanic
argument but not slop. One hones in on a sensibility fastidious, elegant,
slightly acidic, even occasionally sensual, and above all a compulsion
to spin out the longest song one can. When I heard the divertissement second movement, I said to myself, "Very French." The liner
notes (by Serebrier) mention Fauré, which is as accurate a locus as any -- maybe Fauré harmonically updated by Roussel, Ravel,
Poulenc, or Piston.
The meat of the piece comes with the slow third movement, as it would
in most Romantic symphonies. The French sound, trim and spare, a bit
reticent and reminiscent of a Satie gymnopédie, nevertheless brings
in something new and personal to the composer -- that meditative, slightly
bluesy lyricism of some of his best songs, like "The Lordly Hudson." The
more-or-less rondo finale alternates between high wit and rapturous singing.
The thing zips along with near-animal energy. One outstanding, delightful
surprise occurs when Rorem gives the main rondo theme to the tuneless
percussion. I also sense the "shadow symphonies" of Mozart's
Nos. 39 and 40 in the background. Certain quick rhythms and the shape
of the first lyrical theme bring Mozart to mind. I have no idea whether
Rorem did this consciously. Overall, the symphony has no deadwood, nothing
of the routine in it. I love this work.
Six years later, the second symphony goes its own way, with no referent
to classical forms at all. Structurally, it's very odd indeed, with a
first movement way more than twice as long as the remaining movements
together. Serebrier gives a very good, brief account of the first movement's
progress, and I won't repeat it here. However, Serebrier does convey
the impression that Rorem merely puts one note after the other. Actually,
it's very tightly written, with essentially two themes (or, more accurately,
thematic shapes) varied and even combined for more than fifteen minutes.
Rhetorically, it is one long blossoming and covers a wide expressive
range, from contemplative singing to lively dance to grand (but not grandiose)
declamation. The second movement shows some affinities to Coplandian
pastoralism (with a prominent phrase very close to one in the Lincoln
Portrait). Though short, it's gorgeous and, strangely enough, very satisfying
as a slow movement. So a slow movement doesn't have to be long to be
good. The jumping finale is "big-shoulder" music, with piano
standing out in the overall orchestral fabric. Despite some wonderful
ideas, including a jazzy section, this movement does seem short-winded.
Nevertheless, the work as a whole commands both love and respect. I hate the fact that I couldn't hear this work for over forty years. Indeed,
both works have revised my estimate of Rorem's work way upwards.
Premiered by Bernstein and New York, the third symphony was subsequently
recorded by Abravanel and the Utah Symphony, an LP I've had for a long
time. The first two movements of the work strike me as expert, rather
than inspired. The first movement is based entirely on a motive of falling
thirds. Serebrier's liner notes claim it's also a passacaglia, but I
don't hear it myself. The second movement is a quick and jazzy piece
of Bernsteiniana, perhaps a tip of the hat to the commissioner. The symphony
really picks up, however, at the third movement, a quirky bit of slightly
acidic lyricism that seems a Rorem fingerprint. Rorem calls it a "short
passionate page about somnambulism." There is indeed a somewhat
eerie quality to it, even emphasized in its placement in the work, before
another, more substantial slow movement. The andante sings beautifully,
but compared to its predecessor, a little conventionally. The finale
displays a grown-up wit -- a kind of sonata-rondo, where two subjects
(one bubbly, the other singing) alternate. It turns out very quickly
that the "two" subjects are really one, simply varied in character
Serebrier champions these works as well as anybody, including the composer,
can expect. They force the listener to re-examine the received portrait
of Rorem as primarily a song and choral composer. Despite the composer's
protests, he is a tremendous symphonic talent. Serebrier and the Bournemouth
players are especially good at generating exciting rhythm and achieving
clear texture (the two often go hand in hand). This is one of Naxos's
best, both for repertoire and for performance.
S.G.S. (March 2004)