Rorem Three Symphonies
Naxos has scored another bull’s eye in its American Classics series, giving us long-awaited, première recordings of Ned Rorem’s first two symphonies. These are early works and real charmers. The First, composed in fits and starts between 1948 and 1950, has a distinctly Gallic flavour: in the booklet, José Serebrier notes the neo-Classical, pastoral character of the second movement Andantino that recalls Fauré’s Masques et Bergamasques. Yet, there is also a plainspoken quality here that sounds, to my ears, distinctly American. Certainly the finale has an exuberance that’s not so far removed from the world of Copland and Harris, though Rorem does tend to score with a lighter hand – even the explosive punctuation of the percussion (de rigeur in finales of American symphonies of the period, it seems) glitter rather than flare.
The Second (1956) is oddly proportioned, with an unusually expansive first movement (at 15 minutes, it’s by far the longest in the three symphonies) followed by a slender, song-like slow movement and an almost disconcertingly concise, jittery finale. Rorem tends to be self-deprecating about his ability to create larger structures, but the opening movement unfolds with a real sense of inevitability, and the balance between lyrical sobriety and rhythmic playfulness is deftly handled.
Naxos has placed the Third Symphony (1958) first on this disc, which makes sense, given that it is the biggest and most overtly ambitious of the lot. It’s also the only one previously available on disc: Maurice Abravanel and the Utah Symphony recorded it for Vox in 1973, and despite Serebrier’s assertion to the contrary, that performance was reissued on CD in 1993. The first movement passacaglia is simply gorgeous – listen beginning at 3'15" to hear how much Rorem gleaned from Ravel – and the two adjacent slow movements are also exquisitely coloured. I find the manic, Bernstein-esque scherzo uncharacteristically coarse, though the finale more than makes up for it, providing exhilaration and plenty of orchestral razzle-dazzle without a trace of raucousness. Vivid performances by Serebrier and the Bournemouth Symphony, and first-rate recorded sound make for a thoroughly enjoyable hour of listening.