Laura Aiken

Ned Rorem: Songs and Cycles

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Although it brings together an interesting mix of Ned Rorem's songs and cycles -- some obscure, like the Six Songs for High Voice, and some more popular, like the cycle Ariel and the stand-alone Alleluia -- this Orfeo release starring soprano Laura Aikin comes across as bland and academic. Aikin, who has had considerable international success as an operatic coloratura, has an agile and attractive voice, and she sings technical showstoppers like "Song to a Fair Young Lady, Going Out of Town in the Spring" and "The Dove in Spring" with impressive clarity and ease. Few recital singers could even touch those two songs, let alone bring such vocal polish to them. But her English diction is so unclear that the dense poems of Browning, Stevens, and Plath (among others) are impossible to follow without a printed text. As a result, the listener can only engage with these songs on a purely musical level, and Rorem's chosen style -- slightly meandering vocal lines over restrained accompaniments that rarely stray from the middle of the keyboard -- doesn't offer enough variety or character to sustain that through an entire album. Aikin can be excused for the incomprehensibility of the Six Songs for High Voice; Rorem's decision to set dense poetry in such an extremely high vocal range (as high as F above high C!) is hard to understand. Only the aforementioned "Song to a Fair Young Lady" comes off well, and then only because it is more vocalise than song. But even in the much more reasonable Stevens and Plath cycles, Aikin allows the texts to drift so far into the background of her singing that you could almost forget they're there at all. This is all especially frustrating because the level of musicianship from Aikin, pianist Donald Sulzen, and instrumentalists Nicola J├╝rgensen (clarinet) and Gerhard Zank (cello) is so high. The execution is clean, precise, and technically sound. But with a composer like Rorem, who always puts his chosen poems front and center, the loss of the text is fatal. These aren't songs you can just queue up and listen to casually. They are intimately mated to poetry that, even in print, can take time to digest. So when the poems disappear, so does any real appeal of the music.

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