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Roy HARRIS (1898 - 1979)
Symphony No.6 Gettysburg (1944) [29:45]
Symphony No.5 (1942) [24:35]
Acceleration (1941) [7:25]
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop
rec. The Concert Hall, Lighthouse, Poole, UK, 9-10 May 2008
NAXOS AMERICAN CLASSICS 8.559609 [61:44]

Experience Classicsonline

The Naxos series of Roy Harris Symphonies has proved to be one of their more stuttering projects, certainly in terms of the discs’ appearance in the catalogue and the personnel involved. The original release dated from the time Naxos were recording in the Ukraine and featured the 7th and 9th Symphonies in 2002. The next disc appeared in 2006 from the Colorado Symphony Orchestra in the safe hands of Marin Alsop and contained his two most famous Symphonies - the 3rd and 4th. So, after another four year pause arrives volume three - also with Alsop but this time featuring her Bournemouth orchestra. Given that he wrote thirteen numbered symphonies which Naxos has promised to record, it is to be hoped that the current rate of two per four years will increase!

Intellectually even more than musically Harris is strikingly individual. He grew up far away from the hub of American music on the East Coast and was largely self-taught until, on the advice of Aaron Copland, he became one of so many American composers to make the pilgrimage to Paris to attend masterclasses from Nadia Boulanger. However, unlike many of his fellow students he rejected much of the neo-classical aesthetic she propounded and, pardon the pun given his farming heritage, ploughed his own furrow. On returning to the States his Symphony 1933 (in effect his first) became the first indigenous American symphony to be commercially recorded. His breakthrough work was his Symphony No.3 of 1938 and it remains his best known work by some distance. Certainly it is the work by which most collectors will know him. Apart from the 4th Symphony the other symphonies - and indeed any of his work - have been much more sporadically recorded. Currently, there is another slowly evolving Symphony cycle on Albany but how complete that intends to be I do not know.

Harris is one of those artists I find very hard to place in the pantheon of composers. Sometimes I find his music to be powerfully uplifting and emotionally involving and at other times opaque and dull. My instinct, and this really is born out of listening to the music and reading the brief biographical details, is that all too often he tries to impose rather grand extra-musical ideas on his work that he does not have the technique to pull off. To my mind the Third Symphony ‘works’ so well because it is pure music and concentrated into a compressed single movement form. Also, it is very clear that Harris was a man of considerable political ideals. He headed up several cultural delegations to the Soviet Union and was an admirer (as so many were at that time) of the perceived pure ideal of a socialist state. My guess is that he sought to copy the concept of the proletariat artist producing music for the masses. This also links in with another neat concept. Harris shared his birthday with Abraham Lincoln and given that Lincoln features specifically in two of Harris’s Symphonies (6 and 10) is it too much of a intuitive leap to suppose that he took the president’s words from the Gettysburg address which enshrines his socialist view that “all men are created equal” to write “[music] of the people, for the people, by the people”? He also wrote a work for mezzo-soprano and piano trio Abraham Lincoln walks at midnight (also recorded by Naxos).

So to the music presented here. Given the presence of a picture of President Lincoln on the disc’s cover and the placing of the 6th Symphony “Gettysburg” first it is clear that this is the key work on the disc. This is not a war symphony. Although the battle of Gettysburg in 1863 was a turning point in the American Civil War, Harris’ focus is on the famous address President Lincoln made when visiting the battlefield some four months later. In one of the briefest yet most famous speeches ever made in America, Lincoln coined the phrase that still resonates in democratic countries to this day; “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom - and that government: of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth”. Written in 1944 Harris heads each of the four movements of his symphony with a title; in order Awakening, Conflict, Dedication, and Affirmation. Curiously not one of those words appears in the speech itself. So what we have is a distillation of the varying moods of Lincoln’s speech overlaid onto a standard four movement symphonic form. It’s a big idea, and one that Harris brings off to powerful effect. To my mind there is a potential danger in giving such bald titles to a movement. The composer is committing himself to a kind of cinematic representation, so ‘Awakening’ (you would suppose) roughly moves from darkness to light - it does; ‘Conflict’ is, well, aggressive and dramatic - it is - and so on. In performance a lot will depend therefore on the players being able to engage in a somewhat technicolour way with the intended emotional goal. Marin Alsop and her excellent Bournemouth orchestra give it a good shot but I am not wholly convinced. This symphony has also been released as part of the above-mentioned Albany cycle played by the Pacific Symphony Orchestra under Keith Clark (originally released but differently coupled on Varèse Sarabande - VCD 47245 and now on Albany TROY064) and I find that performance to be significantly more successful than Alsop. Timings are remarkably similar except in the last movement where Clark shaves a whole minute off Alsop’s 7:03. The differences are in two key areas; the engineering and the spirit of the performance. Engineer/producer Tim Handley - who has been responsible for many excellent recordings for Naxos - seems to have produced an acoustic which feels more cavernous than others I have heard from the same venue. This has two main effects - the lower frequencies are very noticeable and upper detail is less distinct. At the very opening of the symphony this has a striking effect on the emotional landscape of the work. The Bournemouth bass drum and timps give a funereal feel against which the shaft of light from the piano, vibraphone and harp struggle to impact. The Clark recording imbues the opening with a hushed expectation with the high chords brightly etched. The solo strings in Bournemouth are quite forward in the mix and rather literal in their approach. The Pacific Symphony Orchestra players, much further back in the orchestral group are given a wraith-like quality that works surprisingly well. Likewise as the movement progresses Harris does not change the basic pulse; instead he increases the number of notes per pulse played. The effect is of an acceleration without accelerating! The Albany/Varèse recording allows the inner detail to register with greater clarity than the Naxos disc. The Pacific Symphony Orchestra seems more convinced by the work and the movement builds to a (surely intended) exultant climax. The Bournemouth playing, while technically beyond reproach, never takes wing. Harris is a motivic rather than melodic composer; there are not many opportunities for great arching melodies to soar over an orchestra. Instead the focus has to be on the cumulative power of the expanding and developing motifs and to my ears this is achieved more fully by Clark than Alsop. As a movement Conflict is more problematic and probably the least satisfying section of the work to my ears. It does not seem to be representing either an inner or outer conflict. This is exactly the kind of movement that needs one of Shostakovich’s viscerally exciting nightmare scherzos. Harris opts for piercing brass over a string drone which builds to the various orchestral groups throwing fanfare-like figures at each other. In Bournemouth the bass drum again rather dominates. Curiously, there are moments very similar to Malcolm Arnold when the horns obsessively repeat an upward whooping figure. Again, the forward momentum is built by the same basic pulse being divided into ever smaller parts. Clark and his engineers are much more successful at illuminating detail. Most noteworthy is the extraordinarily abrupt end to the movement. Although the final two movements are separate they fulfil a single emotional span. Building from the rubble at the end of Conflict, Dedication builds slowly and sparely. A solo violin reappears much as in the first movement but the effect here of its falling phrase is that of a benediction. This movement is more lightly scored and indeed for much of the time the strings alone carry the burden of the musical argument. In its simple unwinding groping upwards this movement pre-echoes the minimalist writing of Arvo Pärt certainly during the first 3 - 4 minutes. The wind and brass appear after some five and a half minutes and continue to support the music as it becomes increasingly hymn-like and impassioned. The finale Affirmation continues in much the same vein although it uses one of the older compositional devices Harris prefers - fugue. This is fugal writing very much on his own terms but it does gives him the opportunity to demonstrate one of his other preferred techniques - that where the germinal seed-like motifs grow and expand as the work progresses. The entwining brass lines (again better defined by Clark than Alsop) take on a positive heroic tone interrupted by a curious bass drum and cymbals “oom-pah” figure. There is as much conflicting writing here as there was in the symphony’s second movement but this is the chaos of an excited crowd with material overlapping and interrupting in joyful abandon. It makes for a powerful ending to an impressive piece.

The other main work here is the Symphony No.5 which was composed when the outcome of World War II was much more in the balance in the Autumn of 1942. It has no title as such but instead bears the rather unwieldy dedication to; “the heroic and freedom-loving people of our great ally, the Union of Soviet Republics”. This resulted in the February 1943 premiere being simultaneously broadcast to the USSR. Never afraid to take on big ideas, this time I feel Harris is less successful than in the Gettysburg Symphony. The work has been recorded before - by the Louisville orchestra under Jorge Mester (see First Edition review but before that on Albany AR012) but this is my first encounter with the work. Each of the three movements is given a plain number (all movements are created equal perhaps?) Again motivic development is the central compositional plank on which the works rests. In the case of the symphony’s first movement it is based on a rhythmic cell the same as the three note figure that dominates the opening movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No.7. This Harris alternates with a militaristic marching motif. Whereas elsewhere this technique builds to a satisfying climax here there is a sense that after a suitable amount of ‘working out’ the movement finishes in an almost arbitrary way. Movement II is another funeral cortege, this time replete with tolling bells and muffled drums. Perhaps I’m just thinking about the dedication but it feels a little hollowly rhetorical and square-jawed. It strikes me as the least original of the symphonic movements on this disc and the one that could most easily be fitted to a film. Movement III again comprises fragmentary motifs thrown against and chasing each other. Again I feel the resonant character of the recording works against multi-lined and layered character of the work. The rhythm of the first movement reappears and with the brass leads to another bold but abrupt conclusion. 

In the past I have found that Harris’s work has grown on me considerably with repeated listenings. I’m loath to be too hard on the Symphony No.5 for the simple reason I do not know the work well yet. As ever, how marvellous that we can take advantage of such assured and authoritative performances at such a low price. One rather glaring error in David Truslove’s liner note that is repeated on the CD’s cover however. He notes that the disc’s filler -Acceleration - from 1941 is reworked as the slow movement of the Symphony No.6. It’s not; it is the Symphony No.5. Truslove also omits to mention William Schuman in his pantheon of American Symphonic composers which is surprising since Schuman and Harris are most often linked. I would have to say I find Schuman the greater, more consistent composer, and certainly the one whose symphonies show a more cogent and logical progression both individually and collectively. But that being said I will look forward to further releases in this cycle.

Nick Barnard


 


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