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Harris: Symphonies No 5 & 6 / Alsop, Bournemouth

Harris / Bournemouth So / Alsop
Release Date: 01/26/2010 
Label:  Naxos   Catalog #: 8559609  
Composer:  Roy Harris
Conductor:  Marin Alsop
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

HARRIS Symphonies: No. 5; No. 6, “Gettysburg.” Acceleration Marin Alsop, cond; Bournemouth S O NAXOS 8559609 (61:44)

For reasons not entirely clear to either musicians or musicologists, Roy Harris is the forgotten man among American composers of the 1930s and 1940s. Copland, Barber, Piston, Schuman, Diamond, Hanson, and Thomson are all celebrated, and justly so, but Harris, along with Paul Creston (who also wrote some very dramatic and interesting pieces), has Read more somehow fallen by the wayside (except for his Third Symphony). Hopefully, after this disc, that will be no more.

The son of farmers, Harris had a rough go of it as a young man, driving a dairy truck by day, studying piano and clarinet by night. Hanson and Copland, recognizing his talent, pushed for him to win two Guggenheim awards, which allowed him to study with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. Though he first won attention with his Concerto for Clarinet, Piano and String Quartet in 1927, it was his Third Symphony (1937) that firmly established him as a unique voice in American music. A one-movement, 16-minute work, it impressed everyone with its compact and dramatic use of musical motives and its almost inexorable sense of drama. Koussevitzky recorded it in 1939 (available on EMI 75118), and it even impressed Toscanini enough to perform it in 1940 (available on Urania 391). But by 1942, when Harris wrote his equally dramatic wartime Symphony No. 5, dedicated to “the heroic and freedom-loving people of our great ally, the Union of Soviet Republics,” only Koussevitzky was still championing him. The eyes of Toscanini, Stokowski, and many other conductors had turned to Shostakovich, whose Seventh Symphony spoke of the same battle from a Russian’s point of view.

But this is a great symphony. The opening movement starts with a terse theme that mutates with stunning complexity via a scale passage and, later, a broken chord figure, then a change of meter to 5/8. The middle movement is constructed of three contrasting sections: a tragic funeral march, an extended middle section featuring a searching violin melody, and a final chorale with antiphonal exchanges between the brass and strings. The final movement, based on a fugal idea, is built from four long violin notes using the interval of a minor sixth. Repeated brass notes are later worked into a theme played unobtrusively by the strings, then the fugue abruptly intrudes, played by brass and winds.

Acceleration is a tone poem written for the National Symphony Orchestra and premiered by it in November 1941. It was hailed by critics, but Harris wasn’t satisfied with it, so he revised it for a second premiere by Fabien Sevitzky and the Indianapolis Symphony in 1942. By this point, he liked it well enough that he reworked parts of it into his Sixth Symphony of 1943.

Dedicated to Lincoln and subtitled “Gettysburg,” this is without question one of the crown jewels of Harris’s output. Here, a new sense of grandeur and greater palette of orchestral colors makes this symphony one of the great masterpieces of American music. Harris’s sense of construction is not only as good as before, it is even better because it is more expansive but never garrulous, and his highly developed sense of organization—there from the very beginning—is more expressive in this work. Rather than spend two paragraphs analyzing its many beauties and dramatic turns, I will only say to you, run out and get it. Hear for yourself!

Marin Alsop, another Naxos conductor I’ve always admired, simply outdoes herself here. Like so many modern conductors, she emphasizes well-balanced sections, a steady tempo, and fine dynamic contrasts, but unlike so many others she throws herself into the music. There is scarcely a moment in these works when she seems at an emotional disconnect from Harris’s message, and in the second movement of the Sixth Symphony, I swear to you, she makes this conventional CD sound like surround-sound SACD. The strings, brasses, and winds practically leap out at you from all directions. You simply won’t believe it until you hear it. As is so often the case with Naxos, and many other modern labels, there’s a little too much ambience to the sound for my taste, but Alsop’s wonderful penchant for tightly focused section work offsets a great deal of this.

There is not much competition for either symphony. Robert Whitney and the Louisville Orchestra give a fine performance of the Fifth on First Edition 5, but not as beautifully played as this, and besides, the highlight of that disc is Harris’s Violin Concerto. There’s a professionally competent performance of the Sixth on Albany 64 by Keith Clark and the Pacific Symphony Orchestra but, again, it’s really not in Alsop’s league. If you have an interest in American music of this period, you simply must get this CD.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley

This is an important release for collectors of contemporary American music. Roy Harris might best be thought of as a sort of "New World" Bruckner. His music is sometimes awkward, rhythmically clunky and unvaried, but also noble, searching, shot through with brass chorales and contrapuntal episodes, and ultimately uplifting. Both of these symphonies reveal these qualities.

No. 6, subtitled "Gettysburg", despite the titles of its various movements (Awaking, Conflict, Dedication, Affirmation) is about as programmatic as Bruckner's "Romantic" symphony. It works extremely well as absolute music. The same observation applies to the three-movement Fifth, which shares a very similar sound world. Both works were composed between 1942-44 when Harris was working at the peak of his inspiration.

Acceleration shares some thematic material with the Sixth symphony, and the title is deceptive. The movement hardly changes pace at all once it gets going, but as a seven-minute chuck of typical Harris it gets the job done nicely. To say that this music never has been better performed or recorded isn't saying much, since it has received hardly any attention at all. Marin Alsop and the Bournemouth Symphony deliver heartfelt, sincere performances entirely in keeping with the spirit of the music, and they are very well recorded. I welcome this release with pleasure, and so will you.

– David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com Read less

Works on This Recording

Symphony no 6 "Gettysburg" by Roy Harris
Conductor:  Marin Alsop
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1944; USA 
Symphony no 5 by Roy Harris
Conductor:  Marin Alsop
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1942/1945; USA 
Acceleration by Roy Harris
Conductor:  Marin Alsop
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1941 

Customer Reviews

Average Customer Review:  1 Customer Review )
 wish it were more easily likeable February 17, 2015 By Richard Goldwater (Newton Center, MA) See All My Reviews "This is one of those composers I find hard to "get" even with repeated listening. Not that his music is too dissonant -- it is just not easily "characterized" or "recognizable" as Bernstein or Copland are. I am tempted to listen again, though. I'd hate to miss out on hearing an authentic voice." Report Abuse
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