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Harris: Chamber Music / Third Age New Music Ensemble


Release Date: 09/20/2005 
Label:  Koch International Classics Catalog #: 7515   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Roy Harris
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Third Age New Music Ensemble
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 5 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews





Chamber music played an important role in the output of American composer Roy Harris (1898?1979). This CD brings performances by the Portland-based Third Angle Music Ensemble of three of Harris?s works, including his most interesting String Quartet (No. 3) and his chamber masterpiece, the Piano Quintet of 1940. This is all music which should be much better known: the Piano Quintet is certainly the equal of Shostakovich?s in terms of melodic felicity and structural strength.


Bach was a strong influence on Harris and many of the movement titles reflect this: the Quintet contains a passacaglia and a fugue, and the String Quartet is Read more made up of four sets of preludes and fugues. (I believe Harris made his wife change her name to Johana in honor of Johann Sebastian! Her given name was Beulah.) To his Bachian contrapuntal model Harris brought broad hymn-like melodies, diatonic harmony with some modality to spice it up, and asymmetrical dance rhythms. In synthesizing these elements, he more or less invented the sound of Americana in classical music. His piano-writing from the 1930s onwards was also demonstrably virtuosic, written for his wife who was an accomplished concert pianist. The Piano Quintet contains all these characteristics. The simple chorale opening the first movement soon becomes richly harmonized by the strings; the second movement includes a barnstorming piano cadenza; and the fugal third movement is typical of Harris in its use of dance rhythms in 6/8 time. The rippling piano figuration in the final con moto section again demands a virtuoso technique from the soloist.


The Violin Sonata of 1945 is a less public utterance, more inward looking, and betrays a familiarity with Debussy?s sonata, notably in the piano part. The slow movement?another broad, diatonic melody?is especially lovely. Counterpoint is to the fore in the String Quartet, in the preludes as well as the fugues, as is Harris?s formal rigor: there is no feeling of note spinning and none of the movements outstays its welcome.


The booklet notes go to some length to defend Harris?s ?old time? style, but I think this does him a disservice. Far from being a self-taught hick, Harris was a sophisticated craftsman who studied with Nadia Boulanger. Nor is his music easy to play. These well-recorded performances are more than serviceable but not top flight. Some tricky exposed string doubling tests the performers? intonation (such as the very opening of the Quintet) and the fast conclusion of the same work becomes something of a scramble. Intonation suffers there, too. In both the Quintet and the String Quartet the 6/8 dance movements could be lighter on their feet: in this meter the tendency is to speed up, but these musicians actually get slower, which is worse. The best-played work here is the sonata; first violinist Ron Blessinger (I presume?the booklet doesn?t specify) draws out the melodic lines lovingly. Pianist Susan Smith displays all the necessary bravura in the quintet and offers sensitive support in the Sonata. The String Quartet is well done, but it would be fascinating to hear a group with the razor-sharp responses of the Emersons tackle it. (I wonder if it?s in their repertoire.)


At present, these recordings appear to be the only game in town. I have a feeling Johana Harris recorded the Quintet, but I can find no sign of it. There is another performance of the Violin Sonata on Albany, coupled with Harris?s solo piano music, which has been highly praised?although I haven?t heard it myself. For all my nitpicking, let me repeat: this is music that anyone interested in 20th-century Americana should have in their collection, especially the Piano Quintet.


FANFARE: Phillip Scott
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Works on This Recording

1.
Quintet for Piano and Strings by Roy Harris
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Third Age New Music Ensemble
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1936 
2.
Sonata for Violin and Piano by Roy Harris
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Third Age New Music Ensemble
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1941/1974; USA 
3.
Quartet for Strings no 3 by Roy Harris
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Third Age New Music Ensemble
Period: 20th Century 

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