ROREM Symphonies: Nos. 1, 2, 3

ROREM Symphonies: Nos. 1, 2, 3 • José Serebrier, cond; Bournemouth SO • NAXOS 8.559149 (69:22)

Ned Rorem is the youngest of the three American composers (along with Howard Hanson and Samuel Barber) associated with the “neo-romantic” aesthetic sensibility who are best known to the general listening public. However, his reputation is based chiefly on his vocal music (aside from his diaries and essays), which includes hundreds of song-settings. But the fact is that Rorem, who just turned 80 last year, has enjoyed an enormously fecund artistic career, contributing generously to most musical media and genres. This makes a valid, meaningful comprehensive assessment of his creative work quite difficult, requiring some reasonable familiarity with all aspects of his output. I should point out that I do not pretend to have attained this degree of familiarity with Rorem’s work, partly because I tend to gravitate toward composers who favor large, abstract statements, and partly because few of those works of his with which I am acquainted have impressed me deeply enough for me to pursue such a comprehensive exploration.

One of the lesser-known aspects of Rorem’s output involves his three symphonies, of which only No. 3 has been recorded before, in a rather scrappy reading released around 1970 on Turnabout, with the Utah Symphony conducted by Maurice Abravanel. All three were composed during the 1950s, the decade during which the American symphonic genre achieved its richest fruition. It is thus particularly illuminating to hear the contributions to this demanding genre—one typically viewed as the vehicle of choice for large, serious abstract statements—from a composer whose distinguished reputation is based largely on a remarkable gift for capturing the essence of a fleeting moment or impression, and who has often articulated his antipathy for the large abstract statement.

Let me say at the outset that references to other composers in the comments that follow are provided for the purpose of descriptive communication, and are not intended as criticisms or suggestions of plagiarism. The four-movement Symphony No. 1 dates from 1950. The first movement is generally pleasant but ordinary, except for a rather haunting effect created by a recurrent accompanimental pedal-point ostinato. The second movement is a gracious intermezzo, somewhat along the lines of a Ravel sicilienne. The third movement is quite lush, with a neo-archaic Respighi-Malipiero flavor. The finale is engagingly exuberant, displaying a light-hearted lyricism.

The three-movement Symphony No. 2 (1956) impresses me as the strongest of the three works under discussion, although it has rarely been performed during its nearly-half-century existence. It begins with a substantial opening movement, as an arrestingly solemn introduction leads into a graceful allegro that reflects a much stronger sense of purpose than what emerges from the earlier work. At fifteen minutes, this one movement comprises about two-thirds of the symphony’s duration, and strikes me as the most fully realized music on the entire CD. The brief slow movement spins a slowly-unfolding melodic line with confident self-assurance, somewhat in the Copland vein, but more richly textured. The light-hearted third movement returns to the playful Franco-American manner of the First Symphony finale.

The Symphony No. 3 (1958) is the best known of the three, because of an initial launch under the approving aegis of Leonard Bernstein, as well the aforementioned previous recording, which this far superior reading easily surpasses in refinement and polish. In five short movements, the work opens with a sober but harmonically diffuse quasi-passacaglia that fails to engage interest. This is followed by a brash and jazzy scherzo with shifting irregular meters that most anyone would associate with Leonard Bernstein. Rorem asserts that this movement was originally composed as an autonomous entity in 1949, which means that this lively and infectious dance pre-dates many of the Bernstein pieces it resembles. The third movement is slow and moody—picturesque if one views it as accompanimental, but lacking expressive focus on its own. It is followed by another, more lyrical slow movement that is perhaps the work’s high point. The finale is exuberant and extraverted, with highly colorful orchestration. It proclaims a sort of shallow flashiness very evocative of America during the 1950s. 

It is useful, while assessing these works, to bear in mind the context in which they appeared: those American symphonies of the 1950s that represent the decade’s greatest achievements in the genre, products of composers for whom, unlike Rorem, the symphony was a central medium of expression, i.e. Ernest Bloch’s Sinfonia Breve (No. 3, 1952), Walter Piston’s No. 6 (1955), Vincent Persichetti’s Nos. 5 and 6 (1953, 1956), and Peter Mennin’s Nos. 5 and 6 (1950, 1953). (Mennin, incidentally, was Rorem’s exact contemporary.) It is also useful to recall the profusion of American symphonies from that period, competently wrought, but with aesthetic aims and musical substance so commonplace as to seem from today’s standpoint to be rather predictable, if not trite. 

My overall reaction to Rorem’s three symphonies is that they are generally pleasing, attractive works, each boasting some portions that are engaging or noteworthy in some way, but, on the whole, do not really loom above the routine. What is most sorely lacking, especially when considered alongside the works noted in the previous paragraph, is both true stylistic individuality and a consistent expressive focus. While writing this review, I am also working on another CD (whose notice may or may not wind up in this issue) that offers (among other works) the Symphony No. 2 of the tragically short-lived American composer Robert Kurka. Composed in 1953, it is naïve and somewhat derivative, but this work proclaims an individuality and sense of purpose that seemed to elude Rorem. José Serebrier deserves credit for allowing us to become familiar with these rarely heard works, while the Bournemouth Symphony provides them with a solid orchestral showcase.