Susan Graham Illuminates Ned Rorem's Songs

Ned Rorem is as good with words as he is with music — as a songwriter should be. His verbal talent is not limited to his highly readable diaries and subtle, perceptive music criticism. He has read widely and deeply and chooses his song texts with the eye of a connoisseur.

"Whatever my songs are worth," he has said, "I've never set a bad poem" — a claim that could not have been made by Schubert. He could also have claimed that he has never set a poem without giving it a greater depth and vitality than it had on the printed page.

This disc brings together 32 of his best songs, sung by mezzo-soprano Susan Graham with warmth, expressiveness and a deep sense of the synergistic values of words and music.

The small print in the booklet thanks Rorem for his "invaluable contribution to this recording," a contribution that seems evident in the selection and arrangement of songs. An impressive variety of subjects and styles is enhanced by intriguing thematic continuities and contrasts. It is as good a one-disc selection from his hundreds of songs as we are likely to hear.

The booklet provides texts for all but one song. The exception is a tour de force, whose title is also its complete text: "Alleluia" (RealAudio excerpt), a virtuoso survey, lasting nearly three minutes, of the many ways a single, meaningful four-syllable word can be put into music.

Other notable items include a deeply moving elegy for Francis Poulenc, a wonderfully atmospheric setting of Frost's "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening" (RealAudio excerpt) and superbly styled settings of texts by Walt Whitman, Theodore Roethke, Paul Goodman, Gertrude Stein and William Butler Yeats.