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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


Roy HARRIS (1898 – 1979)
Symphony No.8 "San Francisco Symphony" (1962)a
Symphony No.9 (1962)
Memories of a Child’s Sunday (1945)
Alan Feinberg (piano)a; Albany Symphony Orchestra; David Allan Miller
Recorded: Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, April 1998 (Symphony No.8) and November 1998 (Symphony No.9, Memories)
ALBANY TROY 350 [66:34]

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Though Harris’ thirteen symphonies (i.e. if one excludes the so-called Symphony – American Portrait of 1929, the Symphony for Voices of 1935 and the Symphony for Band "West Point" of 1952) form the core of his large output, none really enjoyed the huge popularity of the masterly Third Symphony (1938), acclaimed as America’s greatest symphony ever. There are many reasons explaining this state of affairs: the Third is a compact work wasting no time in developing its symphonic argument, the thematic material is straightforward and memorable, and the scoring is quite superb and highly personal. The later symphonies, with the exception of the hybrid but highly enjoyable Fourth "Folksong Symphony (1940, revised 1942), are more ambitious and developed into more complex structures whereas the thematic material may be more reticent and the scoring a bit heavy-footed and at times rather thick. Nevertheless, much of the music in the late symphonies is far too good to be recklessly ignored. As far as I am concerned, I believe that the Fifth (1942, revised 1945) is the one that comes closest to the Third, be it for the quality and memorability of the thematic material and the mastery of the scoring. A new recording is long overdue (the old Louisville recording re-issued on ALBANY TROY AR 012 has some unexplained cuts) and should by now be a priority.

This being said, the Eighth and Ninth Symphonies, both composed in quick succession in 1962, are among the finest. The Symphony No.8 "San Francisco Symphony" was completed in early 1962 to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, but – more importantly – reworks some material of Harris’s cantata Canticle of the Sun on St. Francis of Assisi’s well-known text. Indeed the fourth part of the symphony is an orchestral transcription of parts from the cantata. So, the subtitle refers to the occasion for which the piece was written and to the evocation of St. Francis’ life, though it has to be heard first and foremost as an abstract piece of music. To a certain extent, it is fairly unique in Harris’s symphonic output in that its scoring is much lighter, more transparent than usual. It also includes an important part for amplified piano composed for the composer’s wife Joanna. I had never heard the Eighth Symphony and am now happy to confirm that it is a really fine piece that deserves to be better known.

The Symphony No.9, written soon after the Eighth, was commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra and first performed by them in 1968 under Ormandy’s direction. Though it shares some material with the Eighth, it is a more ambitious, weightier work. Its three movements are quite contrasted and clearly characterised. The opening "We, the people" is, according to Dan Stehman, the most successful of Harris’ fast symphonic opening movements and, quite unusually (i.e. by Harris’ standards), roughly in sonata form. The sombre slow movement "...to form a more perfect Union" is not without its more disturbing moments, especially near the climax. The last movement "Contrapuntal Structures" , subtitled "...to promote the general welfare", is one of the biggest and most complex of all Harris’s symphonies (pace Dan Stehman), and a real orchestral tour de force. It is a huge triple fugue falling into three sections building towards an imposing coda. Undoubtedly a powerful statement with more than a hint of "leave it or take it", but nevertheless quite impressive.

This welcome release opens with a rarity, Memories of a Child’s Sunday, composed in 1945 for Arthur Rodzinski, then Music Director of the New York Philharmonic. This short work is lighter in mood and scoring although the central movement Imagining Things is somewhat more complex. It opens as a gentle nocturne, but the dreamy mood is soon disrupted by a nightmarish central section dispelled by a peaceful restatement of the opening theme. The outer movements are also very fine: the first movement Bells has a beautiful theme supported by a bell-like accompaniment whereas the concluding Play, a reworking of some earlier piano music, provides for a lively conclusion sometimes redolent of the first movement from Respighi’s Pines of Rome or of Ballet for Children from Bliss’s Things to Come.

So, excellent, well-recorded performances of two substantial Harris symphonies plus a quite enjoyable novelty. Harris fans will need no further recommendation, but those who wonder what Harris’s symphonies after the Third are will find much food for thought in this welcome release.

Hubert Culot


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