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John HARBISON (b.
Piano Trio No. 2 'Short Stories' (2003): I. Tale [5:58]; II. Ballad [3:32];
III. Rumors and Reports [4:20]; IV. Enigma [3:51]
Gatsby Etudes (1999): No. 1 Parlors [1:57]; No.
2 Parties [2:47]; No. 3 The Green Light [3:46]
The Violist's Notebook (2002), Book I [7:47]; Book
Ten MicroWaltzes (2004) [8:20]
Cucaraccia and Fugue* (2003): I. Cucaraccia [1:18];
II. Fugue [3:03]
Cello Suite (1993): I. Preludio [2:09]; II. Fuga – Burletta [2:41]; III.
Sarabanda [2:21]; IV. Giga [1:35]
Piano Trio No. 1 (1968) [7:24]
Amelia Piano Trio (Anthea Kreston
(violin and viola); Jason Duckles (cello); Rieko Aizawa (piano)); * Steven Tenenbom;
Ida Kavafian; John Harbison (violas)
rec. 5-10 May 2006, Connecticut College, New London, Connecticut,
CLASSICS 8.559243 [70:30]
slew of Naxos discs have come my way recently, many of which
showcase the talents of composers and players the ‘majors’ seem
to have overlooked. In very few cases I’ve been tempted to
describe some of the more obscure releases as ‘mildly interesting
but eminently forgettable’; fortunately this Harbison disc
falls squarely into the category ‘attractive music … must
Harbison was educated at
Harvard and studied at Princeton with fellow composer Roger
Sessions (1896-1985). His output includes four symphonies,
three operas and various chamber works; among the latter
is the Piano Trio No. 2, a commission from the Amelia
Trio. This relatively new ensemble – made up of professors
from the Hartt School of Music and Connecticut College – has
already garnered plenty of praise for their performances.
They also won an ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming,
which surely makes them an ideal fit for Naxos.
said, the Piano Trio No. 2 is hardly adventurous (for
that read ‘challenging’). In his notes Harbison admits Haydn
is the model for the piece, adding that he could ‘entertain,
reassure, and frighten, all in one place’. There is certainly
something reassuringly formal about the structure of Tale,
with its falling piano figures and ‘accessible’ string writing. Ballad entertains
through the vigorous and mildly dissonant piano part, whereas
the agitated strings and leaping, spiky piano accompaniment
of Rumors and Reports, is more unsettling. Enigma is
Ivesian in its ambiguity, with more than a hint of nachtmusik;
the repeated single note on the piano and the plucked strings
certainly add to its spectral character.
Etudes are derived from a tape Harbison had to prepare
for New York’s Metropolitan Opera, which had commissioned
him to write an opera based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel.
Harbison describes the three movements as ‘pianistically
challenging and fun to play’. No quibbles there, but Parlors also
has a disconcerting idée fixe – a single note on
the piano, each time a little higher up the scale, like
a string too tightly wound. This hovers at the edge of
the music like a spectre at the feast. Aizawa copes well
with the more frenetic mood of Parties, with its
snatches of ragtime. Oddly, the syncopations only serve
to underline the general air of restlessness in the piece.
Gatsby’s infatuation with Daisy is rather beautifully realised
in the final movement, The Green Light, with its
mixture of yearning and unhappiness. The distant beacon
at the end of Daisy’s dock is cleverly evoked in the twinkling
little figure that brings the piece to an end.
two books that make up The Violist’s Notebook contain
twelve ‘movements’ in all, each lasting no more than a minute
or two. Again Harbison freely admits his inspiration, in
this case the viola Caprices by the ‘subversively
challenging’ Bartolomeo Campagnoli (1751-1827). Anthea Kreston’s
viola is reasonably well recorded, although the balance is
closer than ideal. At first hearing these studies seem like
dry little vignettes, but they do have an expressive
element that shows off both the player’s skill and the instrument’s
unique timbre. There is one big drawback, though; the faint
background hum on the disc is even more pronounced here.
Not really an issue in the ensemble pieces but it’s quite
noticeable in the solo pieces, especially if you listen with
intriguingly titled Micro-Waltzes for piano are part
of what Harbison calls his ‘tapestry’ pieces. At eight-and-a-half
minutes these are charming – if slightly anonymous – miniatures.
As with the viola in the Notebooks the piano is rather
closely miked. That said, there is probably enough detail
and weight to satisfy most listeners.
says Cucaraccia and Fugue begins ‘with a species of
viola joke’, though goodness knows violists must have heard
them all by now. Still, it’s a tangy little number in two
movements, a kind of ‘duelling violas’ with the composer
himself taking one of the viola parts. The light first movement
is not much more than a minute in length, the longer fugue
rather more serious in tone. The latter is densely worked,
yet still retains the transparency that characterises much
of the music on this disc.
Suite, written while the composer was in Italy, has
a more formal structure with a prelude and four dances.
Jason Duckles plays eloquently enough, though the now familiar
close miking makes the cello sound rather dry. The Fuga–Burletta is
certainly a challenge, even if it sounds more like a study
piece than a concert item. The sarabande is very
slow indeed; by contrast the gigue is at the other
extreme, with some heroic bowing required, but Duckles
pulls it off with aplomb. More than a whiff of pedagogy,
though, so it’s not music one can easily warm to.
the first piano trio (1968) is much more uncompromising – both
harmonically and rhythmically – than anything we’ve heard
thus far. Harbison admits it is very much ‘of its time’,
with jagged melodies and wide dynamic contrasts. It may show
the earnestness of youth but it’s an accomplished and engaging
the risk of damning with faint praise I’d say this is pleasing, ‘accessible’ music
well played, but none of it is especially memorable. The Gatsby
Etudes strike me as the most interesting pieces and have
certainly whetted my appetite for the opera. The recording
is a bit problematic – it’s much too claustrophobic – but
it’s the background hum that’s most distracting. The composer’s
notes are rather sketchy but they do give listeners a series
of useful thumbnails. Harbison’s fans will probably have
this disc already but for the casual explorer it offers a
good, inexpensive entrée to his musical world.
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