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John HARBISON (b. 1938)
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 II [7:44]
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, USA

A 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 explore further’.
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.
That 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.
The Gatsby 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.
The 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 headphones.
The 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.
Harbison 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.
The Cello 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.
Ironically 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 piece nonetheless.
At 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.
Dan Morgan

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