John HARBISON (b. 1938)
Symphony No. 1 (1981) [26:45]
Symphony No. 2 (1987) [24:46]
Boston Symphony Orchestra/James Levine
rec. live, Symphony Hall, Boston, 2010
Reviewed as a 24/88.2 download

John Harbison was born in New Jersey – his father was a celebrated historian who taught at Princeton. Harbison studied music at Harvard, where I believe Walter Piston was among his tutors, and he did graduate work at Princeton. At Princeton he came under the influence of Roger Sessions, ‘for whose work and person Harbison’s respect and love are virtually limitless’, according to the late Michael Steinberg. Another mentor was Earl Kim ‘for whose patience in working through details with him he remains ever grateful’, again in Steinberg’s words. He also studied for a year in Berlin where his composition teacher was Boris Blacher. For many years Harbison has taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a Professor of Music.

He has composed in many genres and his long list of compositions includes six symphonies, a number of concertos and three operas, the most recent of which, The Great Gatsby (1999) was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera. There are also many orchestral, vocal/choral and chamber works.

I’ve heard some of his music on disc, including The Fight into Egypt (1986) for which Harbison was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1987 (New World 80395). I’ve also heard a disc that includes his 1980 Violin Concerto, which he wrote for his wife to play (Koch International 3-7310-2 H1). Some other discs of his music have been covered on MusicWeb International though I’m not sure if all of them are still available (review ~ review ~ review).

The Boston Symphony Orchestra has championed Harbison as a symphonist. It was they who commissioned his First Symphony as a contribution to their centenary celebrations in 1980 though the work was not completed until the following year and had to wait until 1984 to receive its first performance. That came at the hands of the BSO and their then-Music Director, Seiji Ozawa; the piece is dedicated to them. Subsequently the orchestra has commissioned other pieces including the Fifth Symphony (2007) as well as Darkbloom: Overture for an Imagined Opera (2004) and a Requiem (2002).

Ozawa’s successor in Boston, James Levine has been something of an advocate for Harbison’s music. I’m sure, for instance, that it’s no coincidence that The Great Gatsby was commissioned by the opera house of which Levine is Music Director. Some time ago I reviewed a CD of live performances by him and the Munich Philharmonic which included a 2002 performance of Harbison’s Third Symphony, the only one of Harbison’s symphonies that I have heard until now. Levine had the idea that in the seasons 2010-11 and 2011-12 the BSO should perform all of Harbison’s symphonies. These performances were all recorded in concert and this pairing of the first two symphonies comes from that cycle. So far as I’m aware these symphonies – and, indeed, all the other symphonies with the exception of No. 3 – are not otherwise available in recordings except as listed in Michael Herman's American Symphonies discography.

The First Symphony is in four movements: Drammatico; Allegro sfumato; “Paesaggio”(“Landscape”): Andante; Tempo giusto. Harbison has said that the first movement ‘originated in a very curious dream. In the cramped quarters of the BSO’s Cabot-Cahners Room, a group was performing, mainly on metal instruments. Most of the performers were identifiable: few were musicians, those that were played instruments they do not play. When I woke up I was haunted by the metallic harmonies …. As with previous “dream ideas” I felt to get very close to what I had heard, and recognized the idea as one I was waiting for. The first idea permeates the whole piece: I thought of it as being like a forge.’ We hear the metallic percussion right at the start. Two important ideas follow: a woodwind refrain (0:24) and a slow, questing melody for strings and horn (1:16). This is all by way of an Introduction; the main body of the movement (from about 1:57) is marked Camminando (‘At a walking pace’). Initially quite shadowy in tone, the music soon adopts a serious mein. The metallic percussion returns at 4:53 as the music gathers pace and urgency; the writing is angular but tonal and the development of ideas is clear. The ‘forge’ material returns at 6:38 to usher in the main climax; once that has subsided the wind refrain and the horn/string melody are revisited, giving a sense of an arch form.

The second movement, Allegro sfumato, is very brief, playing for just 2:28. The music is light – though not light in spirit – and dexterous. The writing is spiky. I feel this movement functions as a kind of interlude between the first and third movements. Apparently Harbison initially thought of the third movement as a Pastorale and that’s how it sounds at first. Soon, however, the skies darken over this landscape (1:06) with very interesting writing for the woodwind in their lower registers; soon, low tom-toms add an interesting additional timbre. I think Harbison’s use of instrumental colouring in this movement is highly imaginative. A powerful, almost painful climax is attained (5:04) with the low drums prominent before the movement subsides to an uneasy close, ending on a searching unresolved chord. This is indeed a dark landscape; Harbison’s depth of thought and orchestration are most impressive. The vigorous finale is characterised by propulsive, strongly rhythmical music in which the percussion play an important role. This is more extrovert music than what has gone before – the composer describes it as ‘more baroque than the others’. Essentially, there’s no real let-up throughout its duration; the music just keeps driving onwards. It’s a virtuoso, invigorating finale.

The Second Symphony was commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony to mark its 75th anniversary and that orchestra gave the first performance in 1987 under Herbert Blomstedt. The score is dedicated to Michael Steinberg and while the notes accompanying this recording are thorough it’s worth seeking out, if you can, as a supplement Steinberg’s own essay on the work – originally a programme note. I’ve already quoted from this essay which is published in his book The Symphony: A Listener’s Guide (1995).

Like its predecessor, the Second Symphony is cast in four movements: ‘Dawn’ (Luminoso) - ‘Daylight’ (Con brio, non pesante) - ‘Dusk’ (Poco largo, lambente) - ‘Darkness’ (Inesorabile). Harbison originally planned to call the work Four Hymns but jettisoned that idea while retaining the titles for the individual movements. The first one, ‘Dawn’ seems to depict quite bright light at first. A trumpet call, with the interval of a third, is prominent; that reminded me of the plainchant ‘Lumen Christi’ but that may be a coincidence. There follows a complex web of woodwind writing, led off by the flute (1:51), and then a chorale-like passage for strings (2:30). This latter idea gradually becomes more impassioned and fully scored until the trumpet motif reappears to cap the texture.

‘Daylight’ is very agitated and rhythmically driven. This is extremely busy music – almost hyperactive – and a noteworthy feature is the recurring use of crescendi throughout the orchestra. The dynamic level is consistently loud until (at 3:33) the music suddenly and rather surprisingly becomes much quieter; the choir of four clarinets initiate the woodwind-dominated coda. I reflected while listening to this symphony how different the perceptions of individuals can be. John Harbison clearly views ‘Dusk’ in a different way to me – I’m not suggesting for a second that either of our perceptions is “wrong”. His vision does not seem to be a gentle, mellow dusk. Instead, the emotionally challenging tone is set at the start with a extensive string melody that features wide intervals. Later (2:25-4:48) comes a long passage for the strings, starting with the cellos and gradually rising through the string choir. Sometimes the string writing has delicate percussion accompaniment/commentary in the background but the string material itself is impassioned and unsettling.
The last movement, ‘Darkness’ is, by some distance, the longest. The music plays for 8:22 in this performance, which amounts to nearly a third of the symphony’s length. While I would easily use the term ‘finale’ when describing the last movement of the First Symphony I’m rather more reticent in applying that term here. The opening pages sound very determined, almost grim, and there’s an underlying march-like feel. Around 1:50 the woodwinds calm things down somewhat but the writing remains intense, especially for the strings. The tone becomes progressively more urgent with the brass section increasingly involved. Eventually, from around 6:20 an explosive and dissonant climax is achieved with braying brass and forceful percussion – Michael Steinberg describes the climax as ‘a thunderous and terrifying collision, as of meteorites.’ The music subsides – perhaps from exhaustion – and the ending is dark and subdued.
The Second Symphony is a powerful and often unsettling composition. I found it harder to come to terms with this work than the First, especially in terms of charting the development of ideas. That’s not to say that one symphony is deeper than the other, still less – perish the thought – that one is “better” than the other. It’s just that I found the Second more demanding to penetrate. I don’t think there can be any doubt, however, that both of these succinct symphonies are the product of a serious and thoughtful musical mind and of a composer who is thoroughly at ease in writing for the modern symphony orchestra. They are an important contribution to the literature of the twentieth-century American symphony.

So far as I can judge, given that this is my initial acquaintance with both works, the performances by Levine and the Boston Symphony are assured, committed and highly proficient. The recorded sound in both cases is very good and the audiences are commendably silent except at the end of each symphony when they applaud warmly. Both recordings benefit from useful notes by both John Harbison himself and Robert Kirzinger.

These recordings are available in download format only. While the downloads can be had from a number of places I understand that the only source which offers a higher quality than MP3 is the Boston Symphony’s own website.

I shall look forward to hearing – and being challenged by – John Harbison’s other four symphonies.

John Quinn