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 Lighthouse, Poole, 9-10 May 2008. DDD
NAXOS 8.559609 [61:44]

At a Roy Harris concert in New York that I attended in the mid-seventies, Harris’s former pupil William Schuman made a short speech in which he stated that the time had come for a modern integral set of the Harris symphonies. As of this moment, this has still not taken place, although Naxos seems to be working towards it and Albany Records has recorded several symphonies not yet done by Naxos. But there is still a ways to go and that makes this disc by Marin Alsop all the more welcome.

The Symphony No. 5 was begun in 1940, but not completed until 1942, by which time the United States was at war. Harris showed great intelligence in not trying to repeat the one-movement form of the very successful Third Symphony and instead produced a three-movement work based on his favorite Prelude-Choral-Fugue format. While it cannot be described as a “war symphony” elements of those times are felt in the piece. The first movement is based on a single theme and the first half of the movement is full of sharp brass tones, woodwind roulades and an occasional bugle call. This is bound together by some fascinating counterpoint. Part B is a faster development of the previous material, leading to a pastoral section similar to parts of the Third Symphony.

If the first movement can be seen as the base of one of Harris’s famous “gothic arches”, then the second movement is naturally the arch itself. This movement is a very long chorale based on one of Harris’s noblest melodies and showing his complete developmental command. Its mixture of mystical and American Western elements is very moving. As it continues its development the various elements combine to form a climax of great inevitability. The last movement is more ebullient - with fugal variations rather than an actual fugue. These develop into a slow middle section which contains some of the most eloquent music in the symphony. Finally, we have more variants, one almost whimsical, before the fugue works itself out to the finale. 

is one of many shorter orchestral works that Harris wrote throughout his career and one of many that he cannibalized to provide material for larger, more important works, in this case the Sixth Symphony. As a piece in itself it is quite exciting and can stand alone. The Sixth Symphony was commissioned for the radio on the subject of Abraham Lincoln, the composer’s idol. Written in 1943 and 1944 it is more war-related than the Fifth Symphony, its four movements using ideas from the Gettysburg Address to present both a statement of American values and an evocation of the spirit of democratic principles necessary to obtain victory. It presents the interesting spectacle of a last movement that in some ways is weaker than its three predecessors, yet which perfectly accomplishes the aforementioned tasks set himself by the composer.

Each of these symphonies has been recorded once before: the Fifth on an old Louisville First Edition LP in the 1950s with very murky sound [see review] and the Sixth by Keith Clark on a digital LP re-released on Albany TROY 064. Needless to say, the sound on the Alsop disc is fresh and clear compared to these old discs and is quite good by today’s standards too. The brass sound as produced by the Bournemouth Symphony is quite sharp and Harris’s gamelan is quite in evidence. One could only wish for a little more richness of sound from the rest of the orchestra. Just as she was able to get into the sound-world of Samuel Barber, Alsop shows that she definitely understands the more recondite one of Harris, especially in the matter of phrasing. She really knows how to make his notes live and breathe.

William Kreindler

see also review by Nick Barnard