Notes and Editorial Reviews
Veneration. Frontier Fancies. Arcadian Reverie.
One of Ours
Kirk Trevor, cond;
František Novotný (vn);
Cynthia Green Libby (ob); Slovak RSO
MSN 1252 (56:05)
. In Memoriam:
Turn Round, O My Soul.
2 Songs from
The Sacred Harp. Demarest Suite. Nights in Timi?oara. Lilia Polka
David Angus, cond; London PO
MSN 1258 (67:45)
Forces at Play.
Fantasy and Fugue on
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.
Separately Together: Synesthesia.
MSR 1253 (65:32)
One should not, perhaps, be so naïve as to dismiss the
as music that is simply easy on the ear. As the music progresses, one gets a sense of the expertise involved here: the skilled but subtle use of counterpoint that never calls attention to itself. The second movement, “Charity-Caress,” started life as a piece for cello and voice (I am not sure I would have guessed), although there is an undeniable sense of ongoing dialog. Again, one is in danger of missing the composer’s craft in the final “Grace: Pleasure Heart” (which, as the booklet notes claim, is a “spirited frolic”).
The piece for violin and orchestra,
, is memorable for its sense of longing as well as the caprice of the final “Dancedevil.” Harbach is blessed with magnificent soloists, both here and in the oboe pastoral
, in which Cynthia Green Libby pipes most appealingly. The symphony (inspired by Willa Cather) is notable for Harbach’s ability to make her point swiftly (none of the three movements last over five minutes) and effectively. The Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra plays with great belief in the music; recording quality is of top quality.
But if the Slovak RSO plays with élan, it is the London Philharmonic that really excels in the disc
Music for Strings
(MSR 1258). Rarely have I heard the orchestra’s string section play with such golden tone as in the lush and lavish “Hommage” first movement of the Sinfonietta (2010), a part of which reuses material from Harbach’s opera
(Alexander’s aria, “In the Cold in the Deep in the Dark”). Conductor David Angus judges both tempo and textures perfectly. Harbach’s interior, deep side is heard in the
In Memoriam: Turn Round, O My Soul
(how perfectly judged are the low string pizzicatos around a minute in), while the
owes much to Harbach’s interest in strong women (here Harriet Scott). The use of spirituals is to the forefront here, and Harbach weaves them miraculously into her tapestry.
The Two Songs from
The Sacred Harp
exude confidence, both from composer and performers. They are highly atmospheric miniatures, too. The
takes its name from the place where its commissioners, the Northern Valley Regional High School, N.J., is based. Again, music from the opera
is reused (this time Marie and Emil’s duet in the first movement and a theme from a festive wedding in the opera in the finale). Charm is the watchword here.
Nights in Timi?oara
invokes the Romanian people and the city that is known as “the city of flowers.” It is a more sophisticated piece, contrasting with the final item, an arrangement of Kate Chopin’s
for strings. Delightful.
The chamber-music disc brings a more Coplandesque slant, with
Taking as her basis (loosely) an American fiddle tune (it is easy to hear the rusticity), Harbach crafts a real sense of joy, an impression only underlined by the excellent performance. The
for string quartet is inspired by a silent film, the 1912
Making an American Citizen
. There are eight short movements, each lovingly delivered here by the Moyzes Quartet.
is again based on an early film (1913 this time), and is a score full of playfulness;
(another 1913 film provides the inspiration) is charm in the shape of simple yet effective counterpoint. The skillful Fantasy and Fugue on
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
for winds is just waiting to enter the repertoire, I would think. It must be so much fun to play, as well as to listen to. The dance element that shaped the genesis of
Forces at Play
is very evident here. Finally,
for chamber ensemble (for the 1913 film
A House Divided
) includes some fascinating pages (the shiftingly playful “Dancing Rhythms,” for example). But they have saved the best until last: the
for brass quintet is a blast (literally as well as in
). Again counterpoint (here a full-blown fugue) is a vital part of the mix.
All three of these discs include vibrant, stirring music that begs to be heard. Harbach is an individual voice of great skill.
FANFARE: Colin Clarke
My late MusicWeb International colleague Bob Briggs was passionate about the music of Barbara Harbach (b. 1946). He is responsible for most of this site’s previous discussions of her music: Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3, Volume 4, Volume 5; Byzantion covered Volume 6. This seventh CD in the Harbach anthology, dedicated to music for string orchestra, is my introduction to her music, and I’m going to join Bob and Byzantion in enthusiastic advocacy of her music.
For those who missed the first six reviews, Barbara Harbach is an American organist, harpsichordist, researcher and teacher (at University of Missouri, St Louis) who has edited new editions of Clara Schumann and earlier women composers, recorded for labels such as Albany and Naxos, and evidently found time to compose a lot of music too. Her works are distinctive and immediately appealing. This is a tonal, in some ways old-fashioned American sound, with plaintive harmonies, hymn-like tunes, and a simple beauty throughout (think
Appalachian Spring meets African spirituals). But I’m misusing the word simple, because Harbach’s music is finely crafted at all times; this is a composer whose every stroke makes her ability clear.
It’s hard to describe Harbach’s style because she falls in that unfortunate no-man’s-land of contemporary composition: music that’s undeniably rewarding to listen to from the very start, and appealing to everybody, but not at all kitschy, pandering or simplistic. New should always mean different, and while Harbach has clear antecedents she’s no imitation, but new shouldn’t always mean taxing, and this CD is not. The tone is set immediately by the
Sinfonietta, with its wistful opening movement, reminiscent of Barber and Copland in its melodic, clearly heartfelt searching for some kind of solace which is not found. The rest is more chromatic and ‘modern’ but with humor and an earnest spirit: Copland might again come to mind, but he was more acidic at times, and his tunes had a recognizable stamp where these blaze their own trails.
Many of the selections are based on African-American spirituals and other folk traditions; the
Freedom Suite bears three portraits of members of the Scott family (Dred Scott was the slave who, in 1857, unsuccessfully brought a Supreme Court case suing for his freedom), and its movements quote or evoke spirituals from the heart of the American south. The Two Songs from
The Sacred Harp are similarly affecting melodic gems, based on hymns from very early in American history (
The Sacred Harp was an 1844 hymn-book), but with Harbach’s own sensitive updating. The first song brings a second melody stated by a solo violist and then developed by solo violin and cello; the second contains a gentle fugue on a tune published in 1770.
As beautiful as those are, the standout for me is the
Demarest Suite, written for a school orchestra in the town of Demarest, New Jersey. For this unlikely commission, Harbach has written a twelve-minute masterpiece: the opening sees expansive, open-ended sonorities (more reminiscent of string music by, say, Rautavaara) take shape over a jaunty bass line. According to the booklet, this first movement is meant to symbolize childhood and young love, but while I can hear a sense of ‘new beginnings,’ it seems to better capture the feeling of waking up with an out-of-nowhere conviction that today is going to be a good day.
The second movement is a tango, as we are told by the very standard bass line, over which is hung a slightly more melancholic mood. Then comes the finale, which feels like a jovial country dance spanning multiple hemispheres, since its main theme sounds a lot like the Russian folk-tune from Beethoven’s Razumovsky quartets. (The Cold War symbolically ended?) It’s all an absolute delight and, if this was played by a school orchestra, it can’t be out of reach for many amateur string ensembles. They’ll love playing it, too, assuming they love string music by, say, Grieg, Tchaikovsky, or Wirén, or the fantasia on
The CD includes three shorter pieces, the moving elegy
In Memoriam, a rather lively rhapsody called
Nights in Timisoara, which doesn’t sound as Romanian as Enescu but never mind, and an arrangement of a tiny, instantly likable polka by Kate Chopin - whom you may recall as the author of
If I have one criticism of Harbach, it’s her overreliance - common among today’s composers - on movement and work titles which bear little relation to the music. The
Demarest tango is “inspired by” a letter from Abigail Adams to her husband John; how this relates to the music, or why it is at all relevant, or why the letter should inspire a tango of all things, is a mystery. The
Sinfonietta’s movements are all named in French, but shouldn’t “Jeu Jeu” be “Jeux”?
At any rate, ignore the odd names and focus on the music: for those who admire polished string music in the tradition of Barber, Vaughan Williams, and Grieg, with a generous dollop of Americana, this album will be a treat. I’ll be seeking out more of Harbach’s music in time; the previous volumes in this series have been well-loved on this site too. Truly a voice worth hearing.
-- Brian Reinhart , MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Sinfonietta, for orchestra by Barbara Harbach
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Length: 17 Minutes 24 Secs.
In Memoriam: Turn Around, O My Soul, for orchestra by Barbara Harbach
Length: 5 Minutes 53 Secs.
Freedom Suite, for violin & orchestra by Barbara Harbach
Length: 16 Minutes 27 Secs.
Two Songs From the Sacred Harp, for orchestra by Barbara Harbach
Length: 7 Minutes 57 Secs.
Demarest Suite, for string quintet & orchestra by Barbara Harbach
Length: 10 Minutes 35 Secs.
Nights in Timisoara, for orchestra by Barbara Harbach
Length: 6 Minutes 44 Secs.
Lilia Polka, for orchestra by Barbara Harbach
Length: 1 Minutes 59 Secs.
Average Customer Review: ( 1 Customer Review )
Beautiful Rewarding String Music August 5, 2012
By Ray Allen (Brighton, Brighton) See All My Reviews
"Barbara Harbach is a name new to me. Her professional qualifications as a composer and performer are impeccable but, above all, her music on this disc is richly rewarding. The London Philharmonic strings play these charming miniatures with true enjoyment. Anyone who loves Barber's 'Adagio' or Vaughan Williams' 'Tallis Fantasia' will, I am sure, treasure this loveable music.
I have now ordered her First Symphony with eager anticipation."