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Barbara HARBACH (b. 1946)
Orchestral Works – Volume III: Portraits in Sound
Symphony No. 7 “O Pioneers” (2014) [15:09]
Symphony No. 8 “The Scarlet Letter” (2014/15) [14:13]
Symphony No. 9 “Celestial Symphony” (2014/15) [14:39]
Symphony No. 10 “Symphony for Ferguson” (2015) [18:53]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/David Angus
Recording details not available
MSR CLASSICS MS1614 [62:54]

The cause of American composer Barbara Harbach was strongly promoted on this site by the late Bob Briggs. After his death, reviews became less common, though always positive. When this release appeared on the review list, I decided it was time that our readers were reminded of her name and music.

The Connecticut-based label, MSR Classics, has been a staunch supporter of Harbach: this is the label’s eleventh release, and the third in the series of orchestral works (Volume 1); there is also one titled Music for Strings (review). Harbach is a prolific composer, educator, concert harpsichordist and organist, whose music is firmly tonal and in the tradition of Copland in Appalachian Spring mode, without sounding like the great man. Much of her work is programmatic, as illustrated by these four symphonies, all of which have a story to tell.

The sub-title for the release - Orchestral Portraits - is a more accurate depiction of these works than the term “symphony”, which suggests something rather more formal in structure. One might call these four pieces tone poems. Whatever they may be called, the pleasure in spending an hour in their presence is undeniable.

Symphonies 7 & 9 reuse previous Harbach compositions. The former uses three songs from her opera of the same name, based on a Willa Cather novel, using the music to paint portraits of some of the characters. The feel of the music is certainly broad and expansive, matching the Nebraska setting, but oddly, I found the music it brought to mind were the first and second symphonies of Nina Rota, which apparently portray his beloved Italian countryside. You may not know Rota’s works, but they are among my favourite unsung masterpieces. If this Harbach work isn’t quite at that level, it is still exceptionally well-crafted and very enjoyable.

The ninth symphony is an arrangement of excerpts of music from a score written for a St Louis screening in 2014 of a 1906 silent movie, The Birth, Life and Death of Christ. The three movements portray episodes in the life of Jesus. While the music is again very enjoyable, it certainly doesn’t provide, for me anyway, the images it is intending to illustrate. Some of the brass and percussion elements reminded me of Alan Hovhaness, but that may have been a subconscious connection because of a similarly titled symphony of his.

Symphony 8 is based on the famous novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the three movements are portraits of three of the main characters Hester, Chillingworth & Dimmesdale. I haven’t read the story, so I can only go by the comprehensive booklet notes, in terms of how the music matches the personalities. I can report that it certainly does, and is a darker work than the seventh and ninth.

Symphony 10 was inspired, if that is the correct word, by the terrible events in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. Should you need reminding, they were the shooting of a black man by a police officer, and the subsequent days of riots. Again Harbach uses some previous material, but in this case, it is only a theme from her opera Booth!, about the shooting of Abraham Lincoln. There are also references to a spiritual “Wade in the water” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”. The work is stirring, but not angry; apparently, it was Harbach’s way of coming to terms with the events in her home state. Of the four works, it is my favourite.

MSR Classics have used the London Philharmonic for each of the three orchestral works' volumes, an interesting choice - not the St Louis Symphony? - but certainly one that guarantees excellent performances. As I have noted, the notes are very good; they are written in the third person, but with a detail that suggests substantial input from the composer. Sound is equally good.

If you enjoy contemporary works with tunes, and do not require to be drawn into complex musical arguments, then you should investigate Barbara Harbach’s well-crafted music.

David Barker



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