Barbara HARBACH (b.1946)
Sinfonietta (2010) [17:24]
In Memoriam: Turn Round, O My Soul (2010) [5:54]
Freedom Suite (2010) [16:27]
Two Songs from The Sacred Harp (2010) [7:57]
Demarest Suite (2009-10) [11:15]
Nights in Timisoara (2010) [6:44]
Kate CHOPIN (1850-1904)
Lilia Polka (2009) [1:59]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/David Angus
rec. 2-3 March 2011, Henry Wood Hall, London, England
MSR CLASSICS MS 1258 [67:39]
My late MusicWeb International colleague Bob Briggs was passionate about the
music of Barbara Harbach (b. 1946). He is responsible for most of this site’s
previous discussions of her music: Volume
5; Byzantion covered Volume
6. This seventh CD in the Harbach anthology, dedicated to music for string
orchestra, is my introduction to her music, and I’m going to join Bob
and Byzantion in enthusiastic advocacy of her music.
For those who missed the first six reviews, Barbara Harbach is an American organist,
harpsichordist, researcher and teacher (at University of Missouri, St Louis)
who has edited new editions of Clara Schumann and earlier women composers, recorded
for labels such as Albany and Naxos, and evidently found time to compose a lot
of music too. Her works are distinctive and immediately appealing. This is a
tonal, in some ways old-fashioned American sound, with plaintive harmonies,
hymn-like tunes, and a simple beauty throughout (think Appalachian Spring
meets African spirituals). But I’m misusing the word simple, because Harbach’s
music is finely crafted at all times; this is a composer whose every stroke
makes her ability clear.
It’s hard to describe Harbach’s style because she falls in that
unfortunate no-man’s-land of contemporary composition: music that’s
undeniably rewarding to listen to from the very start, and appealing to everybody,
but not at all kitschy, pandering or simplistic. New should always mean different,
and while Harbach has clear antecedents she’s no imitation, but new shouldn’t
always mean taxing, and this CD is not. The tone is set immediately by the Sinfonietta,
with its wistful opening movement, reminiscent of Barber and Copland in its
melodic, clearly heartfelt searching for some kind of solace which is not found.
The rest is more chromatic and ‘modern’ but with humor and an earnest
spirit: Copland might again come to mind, but he was more acidic at times, and
his tunes had a recognizable stamp where these blaze their own trails.
Many of the selections are based on African-American spirituals and other folk
traditions; the Freedom Suite bears three portraits of members of the
Scott family (Dred Scott was the slave who, in 1857, unsuccessfully brought
a Supreme Court case suing for his freedom), and its movements quote or evoke
spirituals from the heart of the American south. The Two Songs from The Sacred
Harp are similarly affecting melodic gems, based on hymns from very early
in American history (The Sacred Harp was an 1844 hymn-book), but with
Harbach’s own sensitive updating. The first song brings a second melody
stated by a solo violist and then developed by solo violin and cello; the second
contains a gentle fugue on a tune published in 1770.
As beautiful as those are, the standout for me is the Demarest Suite,
written for a school orchestra in the town of Demarest, New Jersey. For this
unlikely commission, Harbach has written a twelve-minute masterpiece: the opening
sees expansive, open-ended sonorities (more reminiscent of string music by,
say, Rautavaara) take shape over a jaunty bass line. According to the booklet,
this first movement is meant to symbolize childhood and young love, but while
I can hear a sense of ‘new beginnings,’ it seems to better capture
the feeling of waking up with an out-of-nowhere conviction that today is going
to be a good day.
The second movement is a tango, as we are told by the very standard bass line,
over which is hung a slightly more melancholic mood. Then comes the finale,
which feels like a jovial country dance spanning multiple hemispheres, since
its main theme sounds a lot like the Russian folk-tune from Beethoven’s
Razumovsky quartets. (The Cold War symbolically ended?) It’s all an absolute
delight and, if this was played by a school orchestra, it can’t be out
of reach for many amateur string ensembles. They’ll love playing it, too,
assuming they love string music by, say, Grieg, Tchaikovsky, or Wirén,
or the fantasia on Greensleeves.
The CD includes three shorter pieces, the moving elegy In Memoriam, a
rather lively rhapsody called Nights in Timisoara, which doesn’t
sound as Romanian as Enescu but never mind, and an arrangement of a tiny, instantly
likable polka by Kate Chopin - whom you may recall as the author of The Awakening.
If I have one criticism of Harbach, it’s her overreliance - common among
today’s composers - on movement and work titles which bear little relation
to the music. The Demarest tango is “inspired by” a letter
from Abigail Adams to her husband John; how this relates to the music, or why
it is at all relevant, or why the letter should inspire a tango of all things,
is a mystery. The Sinfonietta’s movements are all named in French,
but shouldn’t “Jeu Jeu” be “Jeux”?
At any rate, ignore the odd names and focus on the music: for those who admire
polished string music in the tradition of Barber, Vaughan Williams, and Grieg,
with a generous dollop of Americana, this album will be a treat. I’ll
be seeking out more of Harbach’s music in time; the previous volumes in
this series have been well-loved on this site too. Truly a voice worth hearing.
Immediately attractive new music doesn’t have to be simple; in other words,
this is both very appealing and very good.