Rorem: Seven Motets for the Church’s Year; Three Moets on Poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins; A Sermon on Miracles

COMPOSERS: Rorem
LABELS: Black Box
ALBUM TITLE: Rorem
WORKS: Seven Motets for the Church’s Year; Three Moets on Poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins; A Sermon on Miracles
PERFORMER: Harvard University Choir/Murray Forbes Somerville; Carson Cooman (organ); Appleton Wind Ensemble; Brattle Street Chamber Players, etc
CATALOGUE NO: BBM 1102
Words and music have been intertwined throughout Ned Rorem’s long life, not only in his output of diaries and other writings alongside his compositions, but also in his settings of texts of all kinds for voice and piano and for many other combinations. One of these discs brings together two substantial and effective cycles for solo voice and chamber ensemble from the 1980s. The Auden set, for tenor with piano trio, deploys songs in strikingly varied moods and textures around a central setting of the familiar ‘Lay your sleeping head, my love’: this is set as bare declamation over held string notes, with Rorem’s more familiar lyrical manner reserved for instrumental interludes. The Santa Fe Songs, for mezzo-soprano with piano quartet, are on a dozen short poems by Witter Bynner, some direct in expression and some inscrutably odd: Rorem seems most engaged by the personal meditation of ‘Water Hyacinths’, which is framed by an impassioned cello cadenza and a calm coda. Christopher Lemmings’s voice is light and clear, with superb diction, though he’s a little inclined to blast in the upper register; Sara Fulgoni achieves an outstandingly rich tone at the cost of verbal clarity, forcing reference to the (imperfectly proof-read) booklet. Chamber Domaine provides excellent support, though the strings seem too recessed in the balance.

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The companion disc of sacred choral music covers more than 50 years of Rorem’s career, from an assured setting of The Seventieth Psalm for chorus and wind which he wrote in 1943, aged 19, to some lucid organ interludes from 1997. The Harvard University Choir produces a well blended if shallow sound, just occasionally sagging in tuning; the 12 Choral Fellows are excellent in the Poulenc-like Seven Motets for the Church Year. The acoustic of Harvard’s Methuen Memorial Hall throws something of a blanket over the recording; the string ensemble of the 1947 Sermon on Miracles sounds especially distant. But Rorem’s supple melodies and harmonies, and his sympathetic response to Bible and hymn texts as well as poetry, ensure that there’s plenty here to enjoy – and church and collegiate choirmasters will find some useful anthems for their repertoire. Anthony Burton