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CLASSICAL  February 2007

CLASSICAL February 2007

Subject:

Inventing American music

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 19 Feb 2007 02:44:14 -0600

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Roy Harris
Symphonies

*  Symphony No. 3 (1938)
*  Symphony No. 4 "Folk Song Symphony" for orchestra and chorus (1939)

Colorado Symphony Chorus; Colorado Symphony/Marin Alsop
Naxos 8.559227 Total time: 58:47

Summary for the Busy Executive: The mighty Third and the
should-have-been
mighty Fourth.

A protege of Bernstein, Marin Alsop performs here Harris's Third, one
of Bernstein's party pieces.  He recorded it at least twice (I prefer
the earlier stereo version with the New York Phil - Sony 60594).  Alsop's
Fourth restores to the catalogue one of Harris's most interesting scores.
On paper, at any rate, this looks like a good deal.

I've found Alsop's recordings maddeningly inconsistent over the years.
She can deliver with eloquence, or she can bore the Lederhosen off you.
As far as her contribution to this CD goes, she's done a terrific job,
providing vital readings of these two scores.  Her recording of the Third
differs from Bernstein's in that she makes the work move less like an
epic, more like a lyric poem -- as it turns out, a legitimate approach.
The Third, like almost all of Harris's music, primarily moves through
counterpoint.  Alsop's slightly scaled-back point of view allows you to
hear the lines clearly.  Koussevitzky called this score the "first great
symphony by an American composer." He was mistaken, of course (Ives and
Copland had already written great symphonies, as had Harris), but not
about the quality of the work.

On repeated listening, it turns out that this score is hardly a likely
candidate for Great Symphony.  Indeed, it seems as though Harris has
pulled off the impossible.  The phrases move in fragments, sometimes
ending on an "extra step," like a dancer who goes on a beat too long or
ends on the wrong foot, almost like a stumble.  The harmonies, though
eminently tonal, lie in weird territory.  The form of the work - a single
movement in five large pieces - seems discombobulated.  No section has
an obvious connection with another.  Yet, somehow Harris brings all of
this mess into order.  The counterpoint absolutely amazes - non-academic,
although it ends with a vigorous fugue.  Bits that shouldn't go together
fit with the click of a well-made box.  Despite the different sections,
the listener traverses the symphony in one large arc.  One thing leads
to another with, to quote Bernstein on Beethoven, "inevitability." Written
almost seventy years ago, Harris's score continues to shine like a new
morning.

Harris's Fourth, finished shortly after the Third, represents Harris's
take on folk music.  Most music historians and critics credit Virgil
Thomson with showing American composers how to put American folk music
to Modernist purposes.  Aaron Copland publicly acknowledged his debt.
Harris lies closer to Copland than to Thomson, but all three manage to
integrate folk melody into their own individual idioms.  Harris wrote
his Fourth for community chorus and orchestra.  The choral writing hasn't
the complexity of his a cappella pieces.  Nevertheless, each movement
burns white-hot with inspiration.  Harris gives you a very personal take
on such chestnuts as "Streets of Laredo," "The Girl I Left Behind Me,"
and "The Trumpet Sounds in-a My Soul," among others.  There's not a weak
moment in the entire score.  Harris takes familiar - even over-familiar
- tunes and bends them in extremely interesting ways.  Yet, for some
reason, it never coalesces into a convincing whole.  In seven movements
- "The Girl I Left Behind Me" (fast), "Western Cowboy" (slow), "Interlude:
Dance Tunes for Strings and Percussion" (fast), "Mountaineer Love Song"
(slow), "Interlude: Dance Tunes for Full Orchestra" (fast), "Negro
Fantasy" (slow), and "Johnny Comes Marching Home" (fast) - it may run
longer than it should.  I wonder what would happen if you cut two of the
slow movements.  I'd choose "Western Cowboy" and "Mountaineer Love Song"
and move "Negro Fantasy" to the middle.  I believe the symphony would
move more convincingly, without the kind of backtracking that three long
slow movements, similar in mood, introduce to the work.  Nothing is wrong
with the any of these movements per se.  Indeed you could pick any of
the three slow movements to the same effect.  I just happen to like the
"Negro Fantasy" best.

As I've said, of the recorded performances of the Third I've encountered,
I regard the Sony Bernstein as the one to beat.  However, there are at
least two recordings of Koussevitzky out there, and those have every
chance of being considerable, even in mono.  It says much for Alsop that
Bernstein's reading doesn't blow hers away.  She takes a different and
valid approach and consequently opens up the symphony, makes you see it
in new ways.  The long-time only recording of Harris's Fourth was
Abravanel's with the Utah (nla), although Vladimir Golshmann led an
earlier one - as far as I'm concerned, not really acceptable.  I always
liked Abravanel's music-making as well as his repertoire - a conductor
who doesn't get much credit nowadays.  The sound of the Utah Symphony
couldn't compete with its glossier compatriots, but it played with a
sense of conviction.  Alsop's Colorado Symphony matches their conviction
and plays better.  However, the chorus really isn't up to Abravanel's,
which I suspect of containing ringers from BYU.  The Colorado singers
really are Harris's community chorus.  They tend to poop out over the
long haul.  Cutoffs are ragged, but not terrible enough to ruin the
performance.  Also, Alsop's orchestra crackles and pops.  If the "Folksong
Symphony" intrigues you, this is the disc to get.

Steve Schwartz

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