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Support us financially by purchasing this disc from
Ross HARRIS (b. 1945)
Cello Concerto (2011) [24.23]
Symphony No. 4 To the Memory of Mahinärangi Tocker (2011) [29.28]
Li-Wei Qin (cello); Robert Ashworth (viola)
Auckland Philharmonic Orchestra/Gary Walker; Brett Dean (Symphony)
rec. 3 May 2012 (Concerto), 6-7 April 2011 (Symphony), Auckland Town Hall, New Zealand
NAXOS 8.573044 [53.59]

What should music from New Zealand sound like? At one time I was quite happy to think of it in terms of Douglas Lilburn's symphonies: spacious with springy rhythms and wide-ranging lines. Then I discovered David Hamilton (b. 1955) who was a much tougher nut to crack. Ross Harris falls somewhere between the two and not just chronologically.

Harris's Cello Concerto was inspired by the superb tone quality and musicianship of its dedicatee Li-Wei Qin who plays it here. These qualities are reflected in virtuoso dexterity but also in a rich tone which Harris explores and exploits.

The work begins with the lowest pitch that the double basses can play. It proceeds upwards, as it were, from ‘dark to light’. The composer describes the sound as “oily-hued”. It also grows in tempo and by c. 9:45 a real Allegro is in motion followed by a Shostakovich-style passage. The tempo slows a little for a dreamy section followed by a cadenza at about 19:30. The tempo lifts again and this time Li-Wei’s clarity of articulation, which the composer so admires, comes to the fore. A wild mood continues through to an exciting ending. The cello competes with brass staccato figures, timpani thuds and string chords until a sudden but inevitable closing chord. This is an ending to make the audience stand and applaud.

Sadly, I seem to have missed an earlier Naxos recording of Harris’s Symphonies 2 and 3 (8.572574) so I was coming to the music quite fresh. The Fourth Symphony is a big statement but unlike the earlier works is in five joined movements. This one is dedicated to the New Zealand-born Jewish poet and songwriter Mahinärangi Tocker who is pictured in the booklet alongside the composer. She died tragically in 2008 aged just 53. Her evocative words and songs serve as a reference point for each of the five movements. These begin with ‘The sea mimics the thousand applauding kanuka’ which is a shrub or tree found in New Zealand. This is a turbulent and wild seascape - in fact some of the most evocative sea music I have ever heard. The use of tuned percussion is especially telling.

The second section ‘Cave me wild under tonight’s moon’ is a “dance-like … portrait of Mahinärangi - wild and beautiful” and certainly a virtuoso orchestral exercise. Next comes ‘The window fogs to track my finger’. This acts as the slow, central section evoking a still and people-less landscape such as you can find in Australasia. It also serves as a lament. The textures are sparse and desolate.

The fourth movement acts as a second scherzo. It is headed ‘I’m the only one turning/The world has stopped’. This builds to “a loud madness”. The finale is an elegiac ache but there is a sense of sunrise and hope before the end and the final tam-tam rustle. The quote here is ‘No sky in her day/Nor clouds below her feet’. It uses a tune from one of Tocker’s songs ‘I will not walk these streets of angels’. The Symphony also uses other of her melodies including the oboe one in the third movement. Throughout, but especially in the third and fourth movements, the solo viola, often with harp, emerges through the glittering orchestral textures representing Tocker’s guitar. The composer’s comments, which I have already quoted from the useful booklet notes, add “as the work progresses … [the violist] takes on more and more the character and personality of Mahinärangi”.

I was much taken with the Symphony. The contrasting tempi are beautifully balanced across the movements and the orchestration is brilliant and personal. There is a sound quality which is unique and not even heard in the cello concerto. The whole composition is heartfelt and perfectly structured.

There is no question that the Auckland Philharmonic are superbly in control as is Brett Dean, himself a violist and composer and just forging an extra career as a conductor. The recording is vivid and allows the music space although the quiet passages need to be turned up. The loud ones are very powerful. It's just a pity about the short playing time. Ross Harris is so little known in the UK and probably in Europe. The brevity could have been alleviated with an extra, shorter orchestral piece such as the prize-winning ‘Sleep of Reason’. Anyway, I, for one, will look out for more of Harris’s haunting orchestral works.

Gary Higginson