> Roy Harris - Symphonies Nos. 7 & 9 [JW]: Classical CD Reviews- Oct 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Roy HARRIS (1898-1979)
Symphony No 7
Epilogue to Profiles in Courage – J.F.K.
Symphony No 9
National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine
Theodore Kuchar
Recorded Grand Concert Studio, Kiev, Ukraine June 1999


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Conductor and orchestra have given us a number of highly impressive discs recently in the American Classics series – not least the superb Piston Violin Concertos – and with Arthur Fagen conducting the Ukrainians have notched up a Martinu Symphony cycle that is more than merely serviceable. Now Theodore Kuchar and the orchestra turn to the laureate of American symphonists and do him proud.

The Seventh dates from 1952 and was revised in 1955. A one movement nineteen minute work, not dissimilar in size from the Third, it presents more compelling evidence as to Harris’ stature as not only the greatest of all American composers but as one of the mid-centuries’ greatest masters of form, mutation and assimilation of material. What sleeve note writer Richard Whitehouse calls Harris’ powers of "metamorphosis" are abundantly in evidence here, from the ominous and dramatic tread of the drum and the brass, string and woodwind’s striving figure at the opening of the work. At 7’30 that mutative metamorphosis begins capped at 10’05 by the appearance of bells and shivering strings and the side drum’s tattoo which leads to renewed vigour in the orchestral attack. His legendary wit appears at 13’10, the rhythmic kick, bucked by frantic drums, brass and raucous wind leading to an episode in which muted brass, over a pizzicato back beat, and some bluesy clarinet are all integrated into the fabric of the score and emanate, as it were, from within it with absolute congruity. Harris’ language is absorptive but never forced or vulgar. This kind of scherzando section leads onto a final peroration beginning from around 16’ – a sonorous, deep tuba sonority spreading like liquid through the score over which strings curve and ascend and a spirit of increasing confidence burgeons. The xylophone rings out before a concerted rhythmic attack features raucous trombones sliding up and down like New Orleans tailgate trombonists on a polite day. Into the fray ride the newly energised trumpets sweeping all before them and the work ends in a spirit of unstoppable joy. I admit it – I was on my feet.

The well-placed central work is the Epilogue to Profiles in Courage – J.F.K, Harris’ poignant but not treacly tribute to John F Kennedy. Tubular bells announce the sonorous and elegiac tread of the eight-minute work. The strings keen but Harris’ paragraphs are strategically short so that the threnody never becomes one of seamless ease and searing consolatory simplicity. Instead its progress is relatively hard won, the

disruptive drum and side drum interjecting and adding a fractiously austere funeral march patina to the work. At 6’ there is a solo tattoo on the drum and reduced dynamics leads to a thoughtful withdrawal, reflection and recollection – no drums now intrude, only the strings’ quietude concerns us, as they slowly fade from our hearing into the silence of eternity.

The Ninth Symphony was commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra and first performed in 1962, predating the Kennedy threnody. It’s in three movements each introduced with lines from the Preamble to the US Constitution and Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. It opens in optimistic, open-air fashion with a piano introducing a folk-like section before a reassertion of the opening brazen confidence – high violins and drum vigour, the lower strings insinuating themselves underneath. The fractious and mean spirited trumpets are ignored by the bulk of the orchestra and a sort of vocalised folk song emerges – beautiful and transient – before some tremendous orchestral pile driver incidents lead to each section having its say in the collective argument. The slow movement "…to form a more perfect Union" is characterised by Whitehouse as a kind of Pavane. Certainly however the building blocks of Harris’ lyricism are audible; cantilena strings, the precise division of the string section with subsidiary motifs for lower strings, the reliance on the energy of the pizzicato to galvanise rhythm (not unlike the role of the bass in jazz), the independence of the brass section, especially trumpet, high woodwinds. Listen especially to the seesawing high woodwind at 5’00 as the passion increases, both melodically and dynamically, and what is generated is a sense of almost spiritual implacability. The last movement is divided into three parts. Vigorous horns and trumpets swamp the texture, the trumpets especially punchy and bossy, riding over the percussion interjections. After a quiet oboe interlude Harris’ rhythmically often jagged but muscular prose reasserts itself and full but not clotted orchestration reappears. The brass rises and falls, the strings come on like folk fiddlers, Harris imbuing the music with sectional independence but orchestral cohesion, launching a favoured violin arabesque as a riposte to the earlier caustic frivolities perhaps. Back comes a striding swinging trumpet figure and a percussion led cry of triumph – high woodwind, side drum, dramatic drum roll and audible reminiscences of the opening of the symphony. We’re back home and the journey was an exhilarating one.

These are superb performances: not the subtlest of recordings but frankly who cares. With works like these to listen to it’s a privilege to spend time with Roy Ellsworth Harris.

Jonathan Woolf

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