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American Classics - Harris: Complete Piano Music / Burleson

Harris / Burleson
Release Date: 09/28/2010 
Label:  Naxos   Catalog #: 8559664   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Roy Harris
Performer:  Geoffrey Burleson
Number of Discs: 1 
Length: 0 Hours 57 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews



HARRIS Piano Sonata. Little Suite. American Ballads, Sets 1 & 2. Piano Suite. Toccata. Variations on an American Folk Song. Untitled . Scherzo. A Happy Piece for Shirley. Orchestrations Geoffrey Burleson (pn) NAXOS 8.559664 (56:38)


This is billed as Roy Harris’s complete piano music. As such it is a valuable issue, and Read more includes several world premiere recordings. Geoffrey Burleson, a graduate of the Peabody Conservatory, teaches at Princeton and is associate professor of music and director of piano studies at Hunter College, CUNY.


The only other version of the Harris Piano Sonata reviewed in the Fanfare Archive is that by the composer’s wife, Johanna Harris (reviewed by Peter Burwasser in Fanfare 23:1). The review is less than enthusiastic, referring to Johanna Harris’s playing as “dull and heavy-handed.” Burleson’s playing is the opposite. His sweet tenderness in the second movement ( Andante ostinato: misterioso ) is hypnotic. Technically, he fears no hurdles. If the recorded piano sound itself is a little harsh at higher dynamic levels, it is not enough to detract from Burleson’s solid, intelligently shaped view of the piece. The sonata itself was written in 1928, when the composer was studying with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. Interestingly, Burleson (who also provides the insightful booklet notes) includes the original version of the Scherzo later in the disc. The way he implies that the melodic lines play tag with each other is most effective. The original version seems more restrained, and more fragmented. Actually, I find it more intriguing than the later version through its unpredictability and its spiky writing, which seems to nod toward Prokofiev. Perhaps a couple of the gestures toward the very end sound a little too melodramatic, a little like piano reductions of orchestrally conceived thoughts. The finale of the sonata, a Postlude a mere 1:40 in length, returns to the world of the opening Prelude, but with the music now hewn in granite. Burleson’s huge sound delivers a most imposing experience.


The Little Suite (1938) consists of four titled movements: “Bells,” “Sad News,” “Children at Play,” and “Slumber.” The carillons of the first movement are expertly delivered by Burleson, as is the melancholy of the 47-second second movement. The 31 seconds of “Children at Play” balances this perfectly before the slow chords of “Slumber” close a delicious piece characterized by the utmost economy of writing.


Only the first set of American Ballads was ever published. There are five ballads, of which the most famous is surely the fourth, “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair.” The third, the sprightly “The Bird,” offers many delights, though before the relentlessly dark, chordally based setting of “Black Is the Color” seems to stop everything in its tracks. Burleson’s expert use of pedal provides the textural contrasts in the finale, “Cod Liver Ile.” The second set, unpublished, consists of only two settings, “Li’l Boy Named David” and “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” The bluesy meanderings of the first are given all the space in the world by Burleson. The surprise comes with “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” slowed to a fraction of the expected speed, with its melody effectively hidden throughout. This is a funeral march, surely.


The tripartite Piano Suite of 1939–42 begins with a movement called “Occupation,” powerfully based on an African-American work song. This is big-boned writing, unashamedly delivered as such by Burleson. The central movement is a set of variations on the Irish tune “Be Thou My Vision.” Burleson is correct to point to the voice of the French composers who so influenced Harris in this movement. Poignant in the extreme, it leads to a playful finale titled “Recreation” (is that a quote from “London Bridge Is Falling Down” I hear?). The active Toccata (1949) is a movement of many contrasts and angular lines.


The Variations on an American Folk Song (“True Love Don’t Weep,” 1944) only lasts 3:43 but its impression lasts longer, perhaps because the ruminative opening seems so magnificently unhurried. A sense of movement does emerge, slowly, as if from a chrysalis.


The work here presented as Untitled (1926) dwells on single lines that, as Burleson points out, seem to show a debt to medieval chant. The bluesy cadences come as something of a surprise, therefore. A Happy Piece for Shirley (undated) is charming and, again, decidedly French-influenced. Orchestrations of 1972 is Harris’s last dated piano work. Granitic chords seem to speak of things of high import. The ending is, poignantly, inconclusive.


A fascinating and valuable disc.


FANFARE: Colin Clarke


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There are some world-premiere recordings here, the most interesting of which is a three-minute piece marked “Untitled” from 1926—but even with these extra items Roy Harris’ complete solo piano music only adds up to some 56 minutes of material. There are four major works, none of them in fact terribly long, but nonetheless wholly characteristic and important: Piano Sonata, American Ballads (Set 1), Piano Suite, and Toccata. This last piece really is a profound re-imagining of the baroque form, not the usual “perpetual motion” study, with a sound that is pure Harris—widely spaced chords, parallel fifth motion, modal harmony—it sounds as if a millennium of music has been packed into one enjoyable, four-minute package.

Geoffrey Burleson deserves credit not just for digging up the unfamiliar pieces, but for bringing all of this music to such vivid life. In the Sonata, he gives Harris’ declamatory writing in the outer movements grandeur without hardening his tone, and he has more than enough digital dexterity for the same work’s scherzo, or the Toccata’s virtuoso passagework. He also plays these pieces as Harris published them, and not as adjusted by the composer’s wife, also a pianist. This was surely the right decision. Excellent sonics make this release the clear reference version for this repertoire, and earn it an easy recommendation.

—David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com
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Works on This Recording

1.
Sonata for Piano by Roy Harris
Performer:  Geoffrey Burleson (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1928; USA 
2.
Little Suite for Piano by Roy Harris
Performer:  Geoffrey Burleson (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1938; USA 
3.
American Ballads I by Roy Harris
Performer:  Geoffrey Burleson (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1946; USA 
4.
Suite in Three Movements for Piano by Roy Harris
Performer:  Geoffrey Burleson (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1939-1943; USA 
5.
Toccata for Piano by Roy Harris
Performer:  Geoffrey Burleson (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1950; USA 
6.
American Ballads II: Li'l Boy Named Day by Roy Harris
Performer:  Geoffrey Burleson (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1946; USA 
7.
American Ballads II: When Johnny comes marching home by Roy Harris
Performer:  Geoffrey Burleson (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1946; USA 
8.
Variations on "True Love Don't Weep" by Roy Harris
Performer:  Geoffrey Burleson (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1944; USA 
9.
Untitled Piece for Piano by Roy Harris
Performer:  Geoffrey Burleson (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1926 
10.
Sonata for Piano: Scherzo by Roy Harris
Performer:  Geoffrey Burleson (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Notes: Version: Original 
11.
A Happy Piece for Shirley by Roy Harris
Performer:  Geoffrey Burleson (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
12.
Orchestrations by Roy Harris
Performer:  Geoffrey Burleson (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1972 

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