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Roy HARRIS (1898-1979)
Symphony No. 3 (1938) [17:59]
Symphony No. 4 Folk Song Symphony for orchestra and chorus of mixed voices (1939)* [40:48]
(The Girl I Left Behind Me [3:51]; Western Cowboy [10:25]; Interlude: Dance Tunes for Strings and Percussion [3:04]; Mountaineer Love Song [7:44]; Interlude: Dance Tunes for Full Orchestra [3:06]; Negro Fantasy [9:20]; Johnny Comes Marching Home [3:17])
Colorado Symphony Chorus (4)
Colorado Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop
rec. concert performances, Performing Arts Center, Denver, Colorado, USA, 22-23 January 2005. DDD

The first thing that caught my eye when this CD arrived was the proud statement on the back of the jewel case that this is the first release in a projected Naxos cycle of all thirteen Harris symphonies. Hooray! This, I’m sure I’m right in saying, will be the first complete cycle and yet again Naxos shows the path in which other record companies have conspicuously failed to tread over the years.

Symphony No. 3 will be familiar to many collectors, I guess, for there have been several recordings of it, not least by Leonard Bernstein. I first got to know the work through his very fine 1961 account with the New York Philharmonic for CBS Sony. He subsequently remade the work for DG, again with the NYPO in a live 1985 performance (see review) and there’s also an electric live 1957 reading, yet again with the NYPO, but this is only accessible to collectors with deep pockets as it’s only available as part of the NYPO’s own-label 10-CD set, An American Celebration, an indispensable, if expensive, set for lovers of American orchestral music. Many collectors will also know the superb Koussevitzky reading and this, of course, is of incomparable interest since it was set down in November 1939, less than nine months after Koussevitzky had led the first performance of the work. I mention these distinguished predecessors simply because in my view Marin Alsop need not fear comparison with them.

The Harris Third is one of the very great American symphonies. Indeed, it’s one of the great symphonies of the twentieth century. It’s admirable as much as anything else for its concision. Harris says what he has to say and that’s it; there’s no padding. Not a note is wasted and in many respects it’s on a par with Sibelius’s Seventh, another marvellously taut and economical work. Koussevitzky, a fine interpreter of the Sibelius Seventh, was surely right to hail the Harris work as ‘the first great symphony by an American composer’. It’s cast in one movement but within that there are five clearly defined sections, which the composer described as Tragic, Lyric, Pastoral, Fugue – Dramatic, and Dramatic – Tragic.

The work opens with a long, lyrical paragraph founded on expansive and expressive string lines. This is music that suggests the wide, open spaces better than any other American piece that I know. This may be a short work in terms of time-span but it’s one of vast horizons and big skies. The succeeding Pastoral is beautifully played by the CSO. Marin Alsop’s control is exemplary throughout the performance but perhaps nowhere is this more in evidence than in the Fugue, where she gradually releases the controlled energy that’s in the music to admirable effect, as Harris surely intended. So there’s real and genuine excitement when the brass and percussion get into their stride at around 10:00. The symphony culminates in a passage of great eloquence and cumulative power. It’s a marvellous moment when this section begins - in this account at 15:36 - with proudly pounding timpani underpinning the brass. Alsop and her players pull this off majestically, with the CSO horns and brass distinguishing themselves, bringing this splendid symphony to a very powerful close.

Harris followed his Third Symphony very quickly. Work on the Fourth Symphony began in the summer of 1939 and the work was premièred under the baton of Howard Hanson in the following April. I’m not quite sure why David Truslove, the author of the very good-liner notes, asserts that the work was “misnamed” as a symphony by Harris. Mr Truslove believes the work is more properly a fantasia for chorus and orchestra. It’s true that the work doesn’t follow conventional symphonic form but I think Harris knew what he was about. Anyway, what matters is the quality of the music. I think it’s fair to say that this work is not on the same level of intellectual accomplishment as the Third Symphony, but it’s highly enjoyable. And Harris had a very particular aim in mind in employing a chorus and basing the work on American folk-songs. He said that a folk-song symphony served “the practical purpose of bringing about a cultural co-operation and understanding among high school, college and community choruses ... that are remote socially from their community”.

The Civil War tune, ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’ furnishes the thematic inspiration for the first movement. It’s a jaunty and outgoing setting, which includes handclapping - by the chorus? - at one point. It makes a vivacious opening to the symphony. There’s a complete change of mood for ‘Western Cowboy’. Here, the music is much more serious, with orchestration that is often quite spare. In this extended movement Harris ponders the melancholy and hardship of life on the range. The frequent changes of key and surprising modulations impart a feeling of restlessness and uncertainty. Towards the end Harris introduces the song ‘The Streets of Laredo’ and at this point the music sounds more outgoing on the surface. But listen to the unsettled orchestration underneath and mark the far-from-obvious key changes. Even here Harris is reminding his listeners that the reality of cowboy life was often much more mundane and grim than the deeds of derring-do often portrayed by Hollywood. 

After this comes the first of the two Interludes, a lively dancing movement in which percussion add colour while the strings carry the argument. The ‘Mountaineer Love Song’ movement, introduced by a grave orchestral passage, sustains a mood of nostalgia tinged with melancholy. The second Interlude features perky woodwinds and, later, an important piano part. This movement is particularly Copland-esque, including a passage, in which the piano is prominent, first cousin to Appalachian Spring. The movement comes to a rather abrupt end, almost suggesting that the music has run out of steam – I’m sure it hadn’t.

‘Negro Fantasy’ begins with a lengthy orchestral introduction, featuring much interesting scoring. The choral writing is particularly plaintive at ‘De trumpet sounds’. Finally, ‘Johnny Comes Marching Home’ wraps things up in fine style. Harris makes much of cheerful march rhythms and this short, celebratory finale rounds off the symphony in exuberant fashion.

The Fourth Symphony is not, I think, Great Music in the sense that its predecessor undoubtedly is. However, it’s richly entertaining, very inventive and sounds to be great fun to perform. It also contains several passages of genuine eloquence. It’s well worth hearing and deserves to be much better known, something this excellent recording should achieve. The Colorado Symphony Chorus sound to be enjoying themselves mightily – as they should be – and they sing with gusto when required but also with no little sensitivity. The orchestra also plays very well and Marin Alsop conducts with her customary conviction. Harris has been well served in Denver.

The recorded sound is very good indeed. As I’ve already indicated the liner notes provide an excellent introduction to the music. The texts are not included, though they can be downloaded from the Naxos website. However, the choir’s diction is good and I doubt the lack of texts will be a hindrance to English-speaking listeners.

The Naxos Harris cycle has, therefore, been launched most auspiciously and I look forward to future instalments. One passing thought. I wonder if Naxos intend to commission new recordings of the Seventh and Ninth symphonies? In a way that would be a surprise since they already have a very fine coupling of these works in their catalogue (see reviews by RB and NH). On the other hand I, for one, won’t be complaining if Naxos give us a choice.

As for this present disc, collectors need not hesitate. It’s a pleasure to recommend this excellent disc.

John Quinn






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