Orchestral Music. Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, cond. Kirk Trevor.
Frantisek Novotny, Violin. Cynthia Green Libby, Oboe.
MSR Classics MS 1252. 2007. TT:56:05
Chamber Music I. American Solstice for Chamber Ensemble;
Transformations for String Quartet; Forces at Play for Chamber
Ensemble; Carondelet Caprice for Chamber Ensemble; Fantasy and Fugue
on Swing Low Sweet Chariot for Woodwind Quartet; Separately Together -
Synesthesia for Chamber Ensemble; Rhapsody Ritmico for Brass Quintet.
Ensemble Istropolis. Moyzes String Quartet. Woodwind Quintet. Brass
Quintet. Kirk Trevor, Director.
MSR Classics MS 1253. 2007. TT: 65:32
Barbara Harbach has composed extensively in many forms, is a brilliant
harpsichordist, and is a scholar of 18th Century music, particularly of
the work of women composers. She initiated a Women in the Arts program
in St. Louis. Professor of Music at The University of Missouri-St.
Louis, she studied at Penn State, Yale, the Musikhochschule in Frankfurt
am Main, and the Eastman School of Music, from which she holds her
doctorate. Be assured, though, that there is nothing 'academic sounding'
about her music.
In fact, Harbach's orchestral music is on the whole remarkably gentle
and comfortable-sounding, even comforting - never fierce even when
vigorous--and there is very little music I would put in such a category.
Generally I go to music for aural excitement and I was initially put off
just a bit when I did not find that here, but, as in the case of some
quiet and gentle people, further acquaintance can reveal beautiful
characteristics and come to be deeply satisfying.
Some of this music, notably Arcadian Reverie and the Rhapsody Jardine
for Oboe and String Orchestra, can be characterized as American pastoral.
The massed string passages with gentle crescendos in the former actually
reminded me a bit of Vaughan Williams' Tallis Fantasia, and the mood of
the latter is not that far removed from RVWs Oboe Concerto, although
neither work is in that composer's characteristic modal harmony. The
oboe work does include a fugue and an off-beat waltz, so I hope my
comparison is not too much of a stretch. Harbach likes fugues, not
surprisingly in an 18th century scholar.
The other orchestral works are each in three movements. Veneration
(with reference to Venus the goddess of love, beauty and desire) has a
quiet, gentle and flowing opening, but with some intensity and release.
The middle movement is an idyll that was to have been for cello and
voice, according to the notes - unsigned but by Harbach; its treatment
is fugal. The final movement is more propulsive, percussive and rhythmic,
formally a rondo, and includes 'all sorts of contrapuntal interplay based
on an expansive rising melody.'
The movements of Frontier Fancies are called Fiddleflirt, Twilight Dream,
and Dancedevil. The music does not defeat the expectations these names
will evoke. The outer movements are lively and rhythmic; the central
one indeed dreamy.
One of Ours - A Cather Symphony was inspired by Willa Cather's 1922
Pulitzer prize winning novel about a World war I American was hero.
Orchestrated with more use of winds and brass than the other works, the
opening is pastoral, the middle movement lively and the finale, entitled
Honor at Boar's Head, opens with a fanfare and has the most forceful
music on the disc.
Initially, I found Harbach's CHAMBER MUSIC more appealing than her
orchestral pieces, which is unusual for me as I generally prefer orchestral
music to all other kinds. The first piece on the disc, American Solstice,
for a chamber ensemble consisting of a flute, clarinet, piano, double
string quartet and bass, is wonderfully fresh, with sunny upbeat melody,
making for far more than pleasant listening.
Three of these works were inspired by silent films from 1912 and 1913,
two by the same director, Alice Guy Blanche. Transformations for String
Quartet has eight movements, beginning with another Pastorale. Harbach
says that it 'captures a vein of folk Americana' with moods ranging from
nostalgia to agitation and resolution.' Carondelet Caprice has a some
comparable moods. Separately Together - Synesthesia 'explores a variety
of emotions and atmospheres that reflect the sensory images of the film'
(A House Divided). The movement titles: Lilting Lines and Careening
Melodies, Spattering Notes, Dancing Rhythms, Lyrical Re-vision and
Crescendo of Colors, give a good summary.
Forces at Play, for flute, piccolo, clarinet, piano, violin, viola, cello
and percussion, begins with a gorgeous theme, beautifully developed, a
touch of which seemed to appear in the pastoral movement of the Cather
Symphony and which reminded me of a similar theme Michael Kaman used in
Mr. Holland's Opus. It runs about eleven minutes, approximately the
length of most of these pieces.
Fantasy and Fugue on Swing Low, Sweet Chariot is another piece of Americana
but with fugal treatment. The short Rhapsody Ritmico for Brass Quintet
opens with a fanfare followed by a lullaby and a frolicking fugue.
The recording is good and the authoritative notes very welcome. A minor
cavil is that the track numbers on the album (yellow on orange on dark
green! on the chamber music album) are quite hard to make out. I
strongly recommend both releases.
Copyright 2008 by R. James Tobin
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