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John HARBISON (b. 1938)
Four Psalms* (1999) [38.39]
Emerson (1995) [12.21]
Majie Zeller (soprano)*
Lynn Torgrove (mezzo)*
Frank Kelley (tenor)*
David Kravitz (baritone)*
The Cantata Singers and Ensemble/David Hoose
Rec. 10-12 Nov 2000 (Four Psalms), 10-12 May 2002 (Emerson), Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory, Boston
NEW WORLD RECORDS 80613 2 [51.02]

John Harbison is one of America's leading composers. His range is wide, for he has written for every conceivable type of concert performance, ranging from the grandest to the most intimate. His music embraces jazz along with the pre-classical forms. It is at once deeply serious and approachable. Among his three operas, The Great Gatsby (to his own libretto) was commissioned by The Metropolitan Opera and premiered to great acclaim in December 1999.

Four Psalms, the larger of the two works on this CD, was commissioned in 1999 by the Israeli Consulate of Chicago in order to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel. A Hebrew prayer of hope from the 5th century is combined with various Psalm settings, all performed in Hebrew. In addition there are sections of recitative that are delivered in English, which to this listener are less successful since the words can seem banal. The general tone is one of optimism, and not a parochial optimism. For in preparing for the commission, Harbison travelled to the Middle East and conferred with Arabs as well as Israelis. Thus the direction of the piece is towards reconciliation, a message that remains as important today as it was then.

On the whole there is a compelling atmosphere, with a particularly interesting combination of voices and orchestra, the latter handled with imagination and always featuring a sure instrumental technique. Thus the early stages of the work set both the standard and the tone. The performance generates great commitment, as the music would demand, and the soprano, Majie Zeller, gives a particularly rewarding rendition of her demanding role.

The other work on display is Emerson, an a cappella piece for double choir. This was a 1995 commission for the centenary of the Wisconsin-Madison School of Music. The text uses prose rather than verse, and was taken from the philosophical writings of Emerson. This inevitably created challenges for the composer, because of the lack of a regular rhythmic thrust as found in verse. His response proves to be a veritable triumph of imaginative resourcefulness, a score full of subtleties which reward the performers and the listener alike.

The recorded sound for both the Four Psalms and Emerson is most sensitively balanced, with a pleasing sense of space and a warm acoustic too. There is high praise too for the accompanying documentation. Full texts and translations are included as appropriate, while the layout features a particularly clear and imaginative design that puts so many other CD booklets to shame.

Terry Barfoot

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