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Veneration for Orchestra (2004) [13:51]
Frontier Fancies, for violin and orchestra (2007) [11:28]
Arcadian Reverie (2004) [8:13]
Rhapsody Jardine, for oboe and orchestra (1996) [9:23]
One of Ours – A Cather Symphony (2004) [13:10]
František Novotn (violin); Cynthia Green Libby (oboe)
Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra/Kirk Trevor
rec. May 2006, Slovak Radio Concert Hall, Bratislava, Slovakia. DDD
MSR CLASSICS MS1252 [56:05]


Experience Classicsonline

Anyone who read my previous review of Harbach’s chamber music will know that I am a fan. All I need say is that this disk is well worth having for, if anything, it’s even better and more interesting than the previous disk. So if you’re with me, you can stop reading now and rush to your local record shop and buy an hour’s–worth of the most glorious music you’ll hear this year. If, on the other hand, you still need convincing, or missed the earlier review, stay with me, then rush to your local record shop.

Harbach is a fine young American composer, organist and harpsichordist who has an impressive list of works to her credit, has presented a TV show, Palouse Performance – seen throughout the inland Northwest - and is currently professor of music at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. 

Her music is tuneful, grateful to play and a joy to listen to. I described the music on the earlier CD as ”white note” music, implying a new simplicity, and it celebrates the great American outdoors. The works recorded here, as befits compositions for orchestra, use larger thoughts and gestures than the chamber works, but her country is never far from her feelings. Take Frontier Fancies, for instance. Although there are no direct quotations from folk music this really is a folk-inspired piece. It’s the kind of thing that Mark O’Conner has been doing for years but, fortunately, doesn’t suffer from his overwriting and outstaying his welcome. In fact one of Harbach’s major attributes is that she never outstays her welcome, one is always wanting more when each work ends. This is a very good thing. So whilst Frontier Fancies “…showcases the interaction between the violin and orchestra…” as the notes tell us, what we have is a gorgeous little suite of three movements which have the feel of the frontier and the cowboy life of the Red Pony, not the Josey Wales, lifestyle. The slow, middle, movement is especially lovely, filled with nostalgia. 

Arcadian Reverie, for strings alone, could almost be called an American Tallis Fantasia, so beautiful is the string writing. Rhapsody Jardine is half pastorale, half jig. The oboe is totally at home in this rustic landscape and the writing is perfectly suited to this most versatile of instruments. It’s played exquisitely by Cynthia Green Libby. 

Had anyone other than Harbach called Veneration a Symphony I might have questioned their judgement, but knowing the composer’s style and sympathies it is easy to understand the work to be symphonic. Beginning with a lovely pyramid chord, this work ambles through a lush harmonic environment; it never raises its voice, speaks clearly and concisely and it’s like having a chat with a favourite uncle who’s got lots of stories of the old days to tell. Wonderful. 

The best is kept for last. The (Willa) Cather Symphony is a more serious composition compared with the rest of the programme but there’s still elements of the, by now, well known Harbach Americana in each of the three movements. Based, partly, on Cather’s 1922 novel – which won the Pulitzer Prize – which tells of an hero of World War I, and the composer’s own grandfather’s experiences of that war, this music is the most personal of all Harbach’s works I have heard so far. Especially impressive, and moving, are the drum tattoo and brass fanfares which bring the work to its conclusion which are not as rousing as they might seem at first hearing; there seems to me to be a poignancy about this coda, indeed, there’s a very touching quality about what she has to say in this work, and it’s especially restrained and understated. This work is very special indeed and needs to be heard. 

The recording is bright and clear with a good perspective on the orchestra and the performances are obviously of the very highest standard. The notes are straight forward and lead one through the music but don’t get technical, nor tell you too much – so, in general, the music is allowed to speak for itself. Harbach’s music is in a class of its own and this is a CD which must not be missed at any cost.

Bob Briggs


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