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Volume 4: Chamber Music II
The Soul of Ra (2005/2006) [10:06]
Freeing the Caged Bird (2006/2007)
Transformations (2004) [16:25]
Echoes from Tomorrow (2006) [26:16]
Kate CHOPIN (1850 - 1904)
Lilia Polka (1899) (arr. Barbara Harbach (2007)) [1:51]
Bratislava Chamber Orchestra, (Ra and Transformations); Bratislava Woodwind Quintet (Bird and Chopin); Ensemble Istropolis (Echoes)/Kirk Trevor
rec. details not given. DDD
MSR CLASSICS MS 1255 [69:41]
Experience Classicsonline

Unless the Americans have changed their ideas about what constitutes chamber music this disc is rather oddly named. Two of the pieces on offer here are for string orchestra. One is for chamber ensemble and two are for wind quintet. Does this really matter? No, it doesn’t, except to those people who refuse to listen to chamber music - and there are some - because they will miss out on some good things.

This is Volume 4 of Barbara Harbach’s music and most welcome it is. This is a different Harbach to the one presented on the previous discs. One of the most appealing things about Harbach’s music is her very Americanness. Her music speaks of wide open places, the prairie, homespun Americana. If you haven’t yet experienced the beautiful Harbach voice then I urge you to first listen to One of Ours - A Cather Symphony (2004) (MSR Classics MS 1252). This is a substantial work, very worthy of our attention and a work which should be heard by all. It is very American in tone and content.

What the two string orchestra works on this disc display is a more cosmopolitan voice. Indeed, The Soul of Ra (two movements, slow and fast) speaks in a kind of accent, American filtered through English. Imagine Tippett, but more transatlantic and you’ve got it. This piece is richly scored for strings, in the way we hear in Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, or Tippett’s Concerto for Double String Orchestra, but not in Ned Rorem’s Pilgrims or Roy Harris’s Prelude and Fugue (1936). But it’s still very obviously American. There’s real heart-felt lyricism here, of the kind seldom encountered in contemporary music. Kirk Trevor achieves a performance of great passion and tension. This is wonderful music. You’ll agree with me. It would be impossible to disagree.

Transformations is an eight movement suite for string orchestra inspired by Alice Guy-Blaché’s film Making an American Citizen (1912) - Guy-Blaché was the first female director in motion pictures and is considered to be one of the first directors of a fiction film. Having never seen the film I have no idea how this music fits with the film whose storyline is simplicity itself - Ivan Orloff and his wife go to America. Ivan treats his wife roughly, as a matter of course, and after landing in America, he forces her to carry their baggage, while he repeatedly prods her with his cane. A passer-by castigates Ivan and forces him to carry the luggage. This is the first of several lessons that Ivan will learn in his adopted country.

When I reviewed the string quartet version of this piece (MSR Classics MS 1253) I wrote that “The music, although still of the Americana style, is slightly more angular with more movement and argument.” Listening to this fuller scoring, and the amplified scoring really suits this music, the Americana is still there, how could it not be! After comparing the versions I find that it is the arrangement for string orchestra which has added this new, more cosmopolitan, dimension to the piece. What we have lost by having the angularity removed we have gained in beauty and stature.

Echoes from Tomorrow is a four movement piece, and it is more obviously American. The first movement has a bright and airy feel, the second has a gorgeous flute solo, which contains some “wrong” notes in the tune, thus spicing the music up a little. But it’s all pastoral easiness and very lovely too. The third movement is a spritely dance and the finale is a sad piece, a kind of passacaglia which builds to a majestic climax. Splendid stuff.

The wind quintet is, together with the string trio, one of the most difficult combinations to write for. These ensembles are, to some extent, monochromatic. Thus it takes a keen ear to create something which has the necessary light and shade to make the composition acceptable to the ear and the intellect. Barbara Harbach is a true mistress of her trade and she knows exactly what will work and be very pleasing to the senses. Freeing the Caged Bird is a suite of four pieces inspired by four literary women - Maya Angelou (a delightful rhythmic dance), Sara Trevor Teasdale (a deeply felt slow movement of rich textures), Kate Chopin (a waltz, redolent of the social milieu of Chopin’s early years) and Emily Hahn, who lived a colourful life, to say the least! This portrait is of a traveler and free spirit, it’s easy-going tinged with nostalgia. This is a marvellous piece, endlessly entertaining and colourful.

The other piece for wind quintet is Harbach’s arrangement of Kate Chopin’s Lilia Polka which gives each member of the ensemble a chance to shine. It’s a kind of Young Person’s Guide to the Wind Quintet. A lovely way to end this exciting disc. This is essential listening.

Bob Briggs

Harbach on MSR
Harbach vol. 1
Harbach vol. 2
Harbach vol. 3



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