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Roy HARRIS (1898-1979)
Violin Concerto (1949, first perf. 1984) [28:08]
John ADAMS (b.1947)
Violin Concerto (1993) [34:11]
Tamsin Waley-Cohen (violin)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Litton
rec. BBC Studio 1, Maida Vale, London, 4-6 April 2016. DDD.
SIGNUM SIGCD468 [62:22]

Reviewed as 24/96 download with pdf booklet from

If, like me, you know and love Roy Harris’s symphonies, especially the Third and the Folksong Symphony (No.4), but haven’t yet encountered his Violin Concerto, this new Signum recording is almost mandatory. This is the ‘remote possibility’ which John Quinn thought unlikely to appear in his review of the only other recording, on First Edition which, though it features the violinist who gave the first, much-delayed performance in 1984, is less than ideally recorded – review and review by Rob Barnett.

Roy Harris was almost as much the embodiment of the American Dream as Abraham Lincoln; like him he was born in a log cabin, paying for his tuition at UCA Berkeley by driving a truck. His music breathes Americana almost as much as that of his better-known contemporary Aaron Copland.

There’s a real link between the Violin Concerto and Harris’s best-known work, the Third Symphony, in that the latter was partially composed from material originally intended as a Violin Concerto. There’s the same mix of strength, American open spaces and predominantly long lines, ending in folk-style music. It’s not quite as luxurious as Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto which, for all that I love it, does tend a little towards schmalz at times.

If anything the somewhat spikier Adams concerto demands more from the soloist but it holds no terrors for Tamsin Waley-Cohen who is splendidly accompanied throughout by the BBCSO and Andrew Litton. Don’t expect minimalist Adams: this is a complex and demanding work, though often as hectic as that famous Short Ride in a Fast Machine.

There are rival recordings of the Adams, notably from ChloŽ Hanslip, the RPO and Leonard Slatkin on Naxos, perhaps even more appropriately coupled with John Corigliano’s Red Violin Chaconne (8.559302 – review). I listened to that via, where it can also be downloaded for £4.99, and enjoyed it as much as the new Signum. The Corigliano, one of his many works with the Red Violin label, is well worth hearing and there are no other recordings of the orchestral version, so ideally you need both recordings of the Adams Violin Concerto. Otherwise let the coupling decide your choice: mine would be marginally for the Harris on the new Signum.

If you don’t yet have a recording of Roy Harris’s wonderful Third Symphony, the two Leonard Bernstein versions are both available to download only and inexpensively. Qobuz (£3.09) have the CBS/Sony, now oddly coupled with the New World Symphony – the CBS Classics LP coupling with Copland’s Third Symphony was ideal, but the Bernstein Copland, too, is available inexpensively from Qobuz, with the Organ Symphony. The later (live) DG recording is coupled with William Schuman’s Third Symphony, a work in a similar mould, and available for £4.85 in mp3 from There’s little to choose between the two performances, though many slightly prefer the older CBS.

With the Signum CD selling for around £12, both forms of download are excellent value: £6.99 for mp3 or 16-bit lossless, £10.50 for 24-bit. The sound of the latter, made in the amenable BBC Maida Vale studios, is first-class and worth the extra. It also comes with the booklet.

The new recording may not offer such popular music as Waley-Cohen’s last outing for Signum – the VW Lark Ascending a real pull for Classic FM listeners who seem unable to get enough of it – but I find it more appealing in offering less familiar repertoire excellently presented. More to the point, it answers Ralph Moore’s criticism of that earlier release, with the BBCSO and Andrew Davis in every way superior to the Orchestra of the Swan – review.

Brian Wilson


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