Roy HARRIS (1898-1979)
Complete Piano Music
Piano Sonata, Op. 1 (1928) [11:46]; Little Suite (1938) [3:08]; American Ballads, Set I (1942-45) [9:15]; Piano Suite (1939-42) [10:26]; Toccata (1949) [4:31]; American Ballads, Set II (1942-45) [5:00]; Variations on an American Folk Song ('True Love Don’t Weep’) (1944) [3:43]; Untitled (1926)* [3:14]; Scherzo (original version of 3rd movement of Piano Sonata)* [2:55]; A Happy Piece for Shirley (n.d.)* [1:11]; Orchestrations (1972)* [1:30]
Geoffrey Burleson (piano)
rec. 11-16 June 2009, Patrych Sound Studios, New York, USA
* world première recordings
NAXOS 8.559664 [56.38]

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 8.559227, 5 and 6 on Naxos 8.559609 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 duration.

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 symphonic workshop.

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, Children at Play and Slumber. 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 Scherzo 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 of 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 piano sonatas and Arthur 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.

Gary Higginson

see also review by Bob Briggs

Harris fans or those with an especial interest in American piano music will find this well worth the small investment.