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John HARBISON (b. 1938)
Requiem (2002)
Jessica Rivera (soprano), Michaela Martens (mezzo-soprano), Nicholas Phan (tenor), Kelly Markgraf (baritone), Nashville S. O. and Ch., Giancarlo Guerrero
rec. 2017, Laura Turner Concert Hall, Schermerhorn Symphony Center, Nashville, USA
Latin text and English translation included

I remember that some years ago I visited Boston, my favourite US city. Walking past Symphony Hall, I saw a poster advertising some of the Boston Symphony’s season highlights and my eye was caught by a mention of the forthcoming premiere of John Harbison’s Requiem, to be conducted by Bernard Haitink, who was the orchestra’s principal guest conductor at the time (1995-2004). I’d already heard some pieces by John Harbison and found them very interesting – I’ve heard quite a few other pieces since then - so I was curious to know what this new work would sound like. The first performance took place in March 2003 and it’s taken until now for me to discover the work through this CD. It was released towards the end of 2018, no doubt to honour Harbison in the year that he celebrated his 80th birthday.

John Harbison himself has written the booklet note and in it he describes the prolonged and somewhat fitful gestation of the work now before us. He composed much of what is now the Introit in 1985 and a piece that he wrote in 1991 “resembles the present Sanctus”. In the 1990s a couple of compositions included more material that has now found its way into the Requiem but it was not until 2001 and a commission from the Boston Symphony that he had the impetus to draw things together and compose the full setting of the Mass for the Dead. He signed the contract at the beginning of September 2001 and, inevitably, as he worked on the composition in the following weeks and months the atrocity of 9/11 cast a shadow and, as he puts it, “made my purpose clearer. I wanted my piece to have a sense of the inexorability of the passage of time, for good and ill, of the commonality of love and loss.” He is emphatic that he never considered interpolating other texts into the Mass in the manner of, say, Britten’s War Requiem. Instead, we find here the same text that Verdi set with the addition of a concluding ‘In Paradisum’

The Requiem is scored for SATB soloists and chorus with orchestra. The orchestral forces are fairly modest: double woodwind, two horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, percussion (3 players), piano/celeste, harp and strings. There are a number of passages in the score where it sounds as if a much larger orchestra is playing but, equally, there are many episodes that are scored with restraint. The score is constructed in two parts within which there are 13 separate sections. These play continuously with the exception of a pause between Parts I and II.

Part I consists of the ‘Introit and Kyrie’ followed by the ‘Dies irae’. The ‘Introit and Kyrie’, which is for chorus and orchestra, is sombre and quite subdued though the ‘Kyrie’ features sinuous fugal writing for the choir. This latter part of the movement is quite angular, the dissonance in the music emphasising that this is a plea for mercy. Unsurprisingly, much of the ‘Dies irae’ Sequence is dramatic and intense. I was intrigued by Harbison’s use of muted brass for the ‘Tuba mirum’ (track 3), a touch that’s both unexpected and effective. The soloists don’t make an appearance until the ‘Quid sum miser’ (track 5) but thereafter the text is entrusted to them until the choir join in again at ‘Inter oves’, towards the end of track 6. The writing for the soloists is very varied, often encompassing a wide vocal range for individual singers, and much of it is highly dramatic in nature. The orchestration is consistently full of incident and interesting detail – I admired, for example, the delicate scoring as the soprano sings the ‘Recordare’. The full forces are involved for the final section of the Sequence (track 7), beginning at ‘Confutatis maledictis’. In this section the supplicatory soprano and tenor solos at ‘Huic ergo’ particularly catch the ear. The Sequence concludes with a choral fugue on the word ‘Amen’ which builds into a complex vocal and orchestral ensemble.

Part II opens with the longest section in the work, the Offertorium (‘Domine Jesu Christe’), which is sung by the soloists. Here, I was particularly impressed with the light, fast music to which ‘Quam olim Abrahae’ is set. This demands considerable lightness and dexterity of articulation from the singers and the orchestra; that’s exactly what’s delivered here. The ‘Sanctus’ is a terrific movement. The choir sings this and their music is dancing and jubilant. Harbison’s scoring is wonderfully imaginative here with an abundance of highly effective percussion, utilising a large number of instruments. The ‘Hosanna’ is exuberant. This is one of the most immediately appealing sections of the entire score. The ‘Agnus Dei’ has a simple, tripartite structure. A rhapsodising violin solo introduces each of the three strophes which the soprano soloist sings, and each time she’s answered by a deceptively simple, hushed chordal refrain (‘Dona nobis…’) sung by the choir. This is very effective – and affecting. In the opening of the ‘Lux aeterna’ the appropriately brilliant textures for chorus and orchestra – really illustrative of light – are memorable. The soloists begin the ‘Libera me’ with very dramatic, attention-commanding phrases but eventually the music becomes tranquil and winds down very logically into the ‘In Paradisum’ in which the choir’s music is decorated by a constantly weaving solo violin. The music flows peacefully in this final section, and despite all the preceding drama and sometimes gritty music the work ends in a spirit that is gently consolatory. It’s a mild disappointment that the music cuts off somewhat abruptly; a sustained chord would have been more satisfactory, I think.

John Harbison’s Requiem is a dramatic, powerful and often eloquent work and I’m very glad that I’ve finally heard it. I don’t know how often people will get a chance to hear it live, so it’s good news that a recording is now available. And it’s even better news that the work has been so well served by the present recording. All four soloists are excellent, singing what sound like challenging roles with ringing conviction. The Nashville Symphony Chorus must also have been challenged – some of the writing seems extremely complex – but as best I can tell, given that the piece was new to me, they pass every test set by John Harbison with flying colours. Their colleagues in the Nashville Symphony Orchestra offer incisive playing and Giancarlo Guerrero brings out not just the drama but also the many subtleties in the score.

The recorded sound is very good, achieving a realistic concert hall balance. That’s to say that one is aware that the chorus are placed behind the orchestra with the soloists rightly in the aural foreground but all three elements – chorus, soloists and orchestra – are well balanced and the listener gets a proper sense of the overall sound picture as well as a welcome amount of detail.

John Harbison has been well served by this recording.

John Quinn

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