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American Rapture 
Jennifer HIGDON (b. 1962)
Harp Concerto (2018) [21:08]
Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Symphony No. 1, Op. 9 (1936) [21:55]
Patrick HARLIN (b. 1984)
Rapture (2011) [8:44]
Yolanda Kondonassis (harp)
The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra/Ward Stare
rec. live, 17-21 September 2018, Kodak Hall, Eastman Theatre, Rochester, USA
AZICA RECORDS ACD71327 [52:39]

Two world premiere recordings flanking Samuel Barber’s perennial Symphony No. 1 make this is a most interesting and welcome disc.

My main interest here was in Jennifer Higdon’s new Harp Concerto. I first came across her in 2012, since when, being quite taken with all of what I have heard, whether orchestral, chamber, brass or opera, I have picked up a number of recordings featuring her music. This Concerto seems to play to the strengths - or should that be the weaknesses? - of the harp, in that it lacks the exciting climaxes of say the Violin Concerto (477 8777) or the Percussion Concerto (LPO0035), as it relies more on the mellifluous character of the instrument. However, it offers some nice passages, inventive orchestration and interesting sound development; it opens with a movement entitled “First Light”, an evocation of dawn, with the tentative harp gradually becoming stronger as the instruments of the orchestra, sometimes just the orchestral soloists, lend support until the sun is fully up, then ends with a short harp solo. The second movement, “Joy Ride”, opens with a brass flourish before the harp enters in dialogue with the string section. As the movement develops, the harp enters into conversation with the other sections of the orchestra until its rousing conclusion. The slow third movement, “Nocturn”, is, as Jennifer Higdon explains in her brief introductory note, “designed as a chamber work”; here, only the section soloists join the harp for a beautiful homage to Debussy and his Trio. The final movement takes its name, “Rap Knock”, from the percussive character and opportunities offered by the harp; the harpist is called on to play the body of the instrument as well as the strings, which here included some sharp aggressive strumming, This is pleasant but it doesn’t quite live up to the virtuosic orchestral sound of Higdon’s previous works.

Samuel Barber’s Symphony No. 1 is a single-movement work; its sections in reality represent the four movements of the traditional symphonic format. This has led to differing approaches by both Marin Alsop (8.559024) and Leonard Slatkin (7432198704-2), who give separate tracks to the four sections, whereas Neeme Järvi (CHAN 9684) and Ward Stare here offer the symphony in a single track. Either way, this is a wonderful work, which, if all you know of Barber’s work is the famous Adagio, is an excellent place to begin further exploration of the composer. This is really the meat in the sandwich, with Ward Stare and the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra offering, if not the best recorded version, a spirited and committed one.

The final work here is Rapture by Patrick Harlin, a name new to me. It has nothing to do with the religious concept of “The Rapture”; rather; it is more to do with sensory and emotional overload. It was inspired by James Tabor, a caver and explorer, who documents in a book how at the deepest point in a cave it is common for cave explorers to feel a sense of crippling fear and a desire to escape. Harlin takes this concept and produces a piece of music which gradually increases in intensity until its rousing conclusion. There are some nice developmental ideas and use of the instrumentation, especially the percussion.

This is an interesting disc, which provides a snapshot of three generations of American music, with Barber as the foundation upon which Higdon develops her pieces while Harlin goes one step further. All these pieces are deeply rooted in tonality and offer the listener something to enjoy. The playing of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra is very good, and although the Barber might not eclipse my favourite recordings of the symphony, it is still an engaging performance. Harpist Yolanda Kondonassis, the Concerto’s dedicatee, gives a fine performance. The recorded sound is very good with no noticeable audience sound, and the notes, although short, are still helpful.

Stuart Sillitoe 

Previous review: Robert Cummings

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