In their massively important and continuing
American Classics series many composers have emerged who were
until now unknown to most of us. Roy Harris however was not one
of those yet his symphonies, although recognized as significant,
have been little heard. Numbers 3 and 4 are on Naxos
, 5 and 6 on Naxos
and 7 and 9 on 8.559050
I have these and have enjoyed them in many ways but I tend to
come away from each work wondering if it was really a worthwhile
experience. The granitic feel of the music, its almost curmudgeonly
nature does not necessarily strike a chord with me. It’s almost
as if Harris had some kind of American outback chip on his shoulder.
He claimed that he was born in a wooden shack in Oklahoma.
With this disc my feelings have not been altered. It begins with
the op. 1 Piano Sonata
. It’s a gruff utterance in four
brief, connected movements with a slow second and a skittish scherzo
coming third. The material is not especially memorable but technically
it is interestingly constructed in the way one idea, often massively
chordal, leads on to the next in an unconventional manner. At
less than twelve minutes it’s the longest work but the CD overall
gives a rather bitty impression throughout its slightly short
I quite warmed to the second longest work on the recording: the
three movement Piano Suite
. According to Geoffrey Burleson’s
very thorough booklet notes the first movement, ‘Occupation’,
is “based on a Tie Shuffling Chant”. The second is an attractive
set of continuous variants on the Irish Hymn ‘Be thou my vision’.
It’s called ‘Contemplation’. The third is titled ‘Recreation’
and is gigue-like.
The rest of the CD seems mostly to be chippings from the Harris
The Little Suite
of ten years later than the sonata Consists
of four minuscule movements - one might say moods - which have
a very Harris sound: Bells
, Sad News
. It represents a different side
of the composer and would be suitable for a young pianist. In
the case of the Toccata
- a very typical Harris piece for
a different reason - the ideas are not really developed but metamorphosed
and juxtaposed with unrelated ones and with contrasting tempi.
It makes for a fascinatingly quixotic experience. Some might feel
the music relates to the Scherzo of the Sonata except that its
harmonies are warmer. Speaking of which, track 23 is the original
of the Sonata. I rather prefer it and I’m not sure
why Harris rejected it, except that, if you do as I did and listen
to the work again but with the rejected Scherzo programmed instead,
then it has to be agreed that it fails to link into the brief
finale in as satisfactory a manner.
The Variations ‘True Love, Don’t weep’
is really a metamorphosis
(that word again) on a series of harmonies. Beginning from a pensive
chordal opening, it achieves an excitable and contrapuntal climax
before falling back onto its chords. It remains unpublished and
is of nominal interest.
Sometimes the influence of chant on Harris has been mentioned;
Geoffrey Burleson does so here. I think however that ‘line’ is
what is meant by chant, as in the Untitled Piece
1926. Rather unlike the other works harmonically, it retains a
sense of its own personal development and ends with a single melody
which peters out as if unfinished.
During the war years, when writing his Fifth Symphony, Harris
began what he thought would be a series of piano suites which
he called American Ballads
. The first set (of five) was
published. The second which consists of just two slow pieces were
not. One assumes that he intended to add more episodes more especially
as the first set is so well contrasted in tempo and texture. I
enjoyed them all, but the melody of the ‘Streets of Laredo’ was
interestingly harmonized. ‘The Bird’ is rhythmically limpid and
haunting. The second piece of the second set is based on ‘When
Johnny Comes Marching Home’ but, perhaps thinking of the ‘boys’
who will not return from the war. Harris sets it as a slow chordal
elegy which is most thought-provoking.
The CD closes with two (very) miniature miniatures. The undated
Happy Piece for Shirley
with its syncopations and
the chordal Orchestrations
, Harris’ last piano work, which
uses the entire keyboard with its granite-like textures.
Geoffrey Burleson (who has also recorded Persichetti’s
Berger’s piano music
) plays with understanding, love and concern
for the music but the recording is unfortunately rather boxy and
unflattering. In addition the music is generally not Harris at
his best. Nevertheless if you are fan of this composer and have
especially enjoyed the language of the symphonies or indeed have
an especial interest in American piano music then this disc is
well worth the small investment.
see also review by Bob