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
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
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
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.