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Barbara HARBACH (b. 1946)
Orchestral Music - Volume 5 “Expressions”
Suite Luther [17:36]
Arabesque Noir [16:30]
Early American Scandals [16:02]
Recitative and Aria [8:49]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/David Angus
rec. 2018, Cadogan Hall, London
MSR CLASSICS MS1672 [59:05]

Between 2003 and 2019 Barbara Harbach was a faculty member of the University of Missouri, and in return for her long service, the Curators of the University have funded this CD of four of her orchestral pieces. No less an orchestra than the London Philharmonic has been hired to record the music, and the English conductor David Angus is at the helm. All this might lead us to assume that this is more a tribute to a long-serving faculty member than music presented to the world on CD on its own merits, but the back pages of the booklet lists a dozen other MSR recordings devoted to Harbach’s music, including four previous volumes of her orchestral music, five of her chamber music and one each of vocal, string and organ music. And as if that was not enough, there are also seven CDs of her performing music by other composers on both harpsichord and organ. That, I must confess, I have never seen any of her music in any other context (nor, in actual fact, do I recall ever having come across her name before) would seem, considering the extraordinary range and inclusivity of my music listening, surprising. The question I must ask myself, therefore, is, have I been missing out on something musically significant?

Based on the evidence of these four works, the answer is no. Here is a solid, workman-like composer who is clearly very much at ease with the technique of composing. You could surmise this from the fulsome booklet notes which, whilst unattributed, seem pretty obviously to be the work of Harbach herself; they tell us all about the technical aspects of the music - we are informed, for example, that the third movement of Suite Luther is ABA’B’, which surely cannot be of much use to any casual listener – and the composer’s thinking behind each piece. The musical language itself is accessible if often rather dreary. Harbach writes in a determinedly tonal idiom, often tied so tightly to the chosen key centre that modulation sometimes seems a distant dream. Basic counterpoint – notably two-part writing – plays a prominent role, and while the harmonic language is certainly not diatonic, neither is it in any way adventurous. My colleague David Barker reviewing a previous disc for MusicWeb International suggested her music was “in the tradition of Copland in Appalachian Spring mode, without sounding like the great man”, and I could not have put it better; Copland is certainly very much in evidence (and I also detect hints of Samuel Adler), but this is no pastiche - frankly, it’s not good enough for that. The long and short of it is that this is hardly an original or distinctive voice, and could be taken to be any one of a dozen or so early-20th century American composers. There are moments of charm and purely aural interest (I am particularly enamoured of the pastoral-like opening to Arabesque Noir), but on the whole, I find little in this music to make me want to go out and search for more.

The five movement Suite Luther was written to mark the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing of his 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg, and is largely based on Luther’s own chorale Ein’ feste Burg with the second and fourth movements using two of his other chorales, respectively Mit Fried und Freuch and Aus tiefer Not. The movements are anchored firmly to these chorales and tend not to travel any further. Arabesque Noir claims to be “inspired by the ornamental designs found in Arabic and Moorish decoration”. Harbach does not attempt any quasi Arabic or Moorish musical effects, and while there are some interesting moments here, you get the impression that this is more music written for the sake of writing music than to express anything more profound. Each movement devotes itself to working through a single idea, and when that has run its course, simply stops and passes on to the next.

Harbach’s profligacy as a composer is revealed in the notes for Early American Scandals. Suggesting that the composer “has always been intrigued by” early American history of the 18th and 19th centuries, the booklet points to no less than nine other assorted works which take this period of American history as their inspiration. There are four short movements to Early American Scandals, the first three of which deal more, it would seem, with timeless human emotions than specific historic ideas. However, the final movement, “Virginia’s Real Reel”, brings a welcome touch of light relief with its jovial dance in which the players of the LPO (particularly the xylophonist and trombonist) are clearly having a good time.

The final piece on this CD also draws its stimulus from 19th century American history, and in particular from the actor Edwin Booth whose brother assassinated President Lincoln. The Recitative lurches from triumphalism to reflection in the declamatory style we might expect from a piece with the title. The companion Aria (subtitled “Our Love Forever New”) imagines Booth’s thoughts after the death of his wife. A lyrical horn solo above shimmering strings shows Harbach in a lyrical frame of mind, but like so much of this music, it fails really to deliver on its initial promise, and after the beauties of its opening phrases, tends to lose its direction and descends into a somewhat aimless conclusion.

Marc Rochester

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