The first thing that caught my eye when this CD arrived was the
proud statement on the back of the jewel case that this is the
first release in a projected Naxos cycle of all thirteen Harris
symphonies. Hooray! This, I’m sure I’m right in saying, will be
the first complete cycle and yet again Naxos shows the path in
which other record companies have conspicuously failed to tread
over the years.
Symphony No. 3
will be familiar to many collectors, I guess, for there have
been several recordings of it, not least by Leonard Bernstein.
I first got to know the work through his very fine 1961 account
with the New York Philharmonic for CBS Sony. He subsequently remade
the work for DG, again with the NYPO in a live 1985 performance
and there’s also an electric live 1957 reading, yet again with
the NYPO, but this is only accessible to collectors with deep
pockets as it’s only available as part of the NYPO’s own-label
10-CD set, An American Celebration, an indispensable, if
expensive, set for lovers of American orchestral music. Many collectors
will also know the superb Koussevitzky reading and this, of course,
is of incomparable interest since it was set down in November
1939, less than nine months after Koussevitzky had led the first
performance of the work. I mention these distinguished predecessors
simply because in my view Marin Alsop need not fear comparison
The Harris Third is
one of the very great American symphonies. Indeed, it’s one of
the great symphonies of the twentieth century. It’s admirable
as much as anything else for its concision. Harris says what he
has to say and that’s it; there’s no padding. Not a note is wasted
and in many respects it’s on a par with Sibelius’s Seventh, another
marvellously taut and economical work. Koussevitzky, a fine interpreter
of the Sibelius Seventh, was surely right to hail the Harris work
as ‘the first great symphony by an American composer’. It’s cast
in one movement but within that there are five clearly defined
sections, which the composer described as Tragic, Lyric,
Pastoral, Fugue – Dramatic, and Dramatic – Tragic.
The work opens with
a long, lyrical paragraph founded on expansive and expressive
string lines. This is music that suggests the wide, open spaces
better than any other American piece that I know. This may be
a short work in terms of time-span but it’s one of vast horizons
and big skies. The succeeding Pastoral is beautifully played
by the CSO. Marin Alsop’s control is exemplary throughout the
performance but perhaps nowhere is this more in evidence than
in the Fugue, where she gradually releases the controlled
energy that’s in the music to admirable effect, as Harris surely
intended. So there’s real and genuine excitement when the brass
and percussion get into their stride at around 10:00. The symphony
culminates in a passage of great eloquence and cumulative power.
It’s a marvellous moment when this section begins - in this account
at 15:36 - with proudly pounding timpani underpinning the brass.
Alsop and her players pull this off majestically, with the CSO
horns and brass distinguishing themselves, bringing this splendid
symphony to a very powerful close.
Harris followed his
Third Symphony very quickly. Work on the Fourth Symphony began
in the summer of 1939 and the work was premièred under the baton
of Howard Hanson in the following April. I’m not quite sure why
David Truslove, the author of the very good-liner notes, asserts
that the work was “misnamed” as a symphony by Harris. Mr Truslove
believes the work is more properly a fantasia for chorus and orchestra.
It’s true that the work doesn’t follow conventional symphonic
form but I think Harris knew what he was about. Anyway, what matters
is the quality of the music. I think it’s fair to say that this
work is not on the same level of intellectual accomplishment as
the Third Symphony, but it’s highly enjoyable. And Harris had
a very particular aim in mind in employing a chorus and basing
the work on American folk-songs. He said that a folk-song symphony
served “the practical purpose of bringing about a cultural co-operation
and understanding among high school, college and community choruses
... that are remote socially from their community”.
The Civil War tune,
‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’ furnishes the thematic inspiration
for the first movement. It’s a jaunty and outgoing setting, which
includes handclapping - by the chorus? - at one point. It makes
a vivacious opening to the symphony. There’s a complete change
of mood for ‘Western Cowboy’. Here, the music is much more serious,
with orchestration that is often quite spare. In this extended
movement Harris ponders the melancholy and hardship of life on
the range. The frequent changes of key and surprising modulations
impart a feeling of restlessness and uncertainty. Towards the
end Harris introduces the song ‘The Streets of Laredo’ and at
this point the music sounds more outgoing on the surface. But
listen to the unsettled orchestration underneath and mark the
far-from-obvious key changes. Even here Harris is reminding his
listeners that the reality of cowboy life was often much more
mundane and grim than the deeds of derring-do often portrayed
After this comes the
first of the two Interludes, a lively dancing movement in which
percussion add colour while the strings carry the argument. The
‘Mountaineer Love Song’ movement, introduced by a grave orchestral
passage, sustains a mood of nostalgia tinged with melancholy.
The second Interlude features perky woodwinds and, later, an important
piano part. This movement is particularly Copland-esque, including
a passage, in which the piano is prominent, first cousin to Appalachian
Spring. The movement comes to a rather abrupt end, almost
suggesting that the music has run out of steam – I’m sure it hadn’t.
‘Negro Fantasy’ begins
with a lengthy orchestral introduction, featuring much interesting
scoring. The choral writing is particularly plaintive at ‘De trumpet
sounds’. Finally, ‘Johnny Comes Marching Home’ wraps things up
in fine style. Harris makes much of cheerful march rhythms and
this short, celebratory finale rounds off the symphony in exuberant
The Fourth Symphony
is not, I think, Great Music in the sense that its predecessor
undoubtedly is. However, it’s richly entertaining, very inventive
and sounds to be great fun to perform. It also contains several
passages of genuine eloquence. It’s well worth hearing and deserves
to be much better known, something this excellent recording should
achieve. The Colorado Symphony Chorus sound to be enjoying themselves
mightily – as they should be – and they sing with gusto when required
but also with no little sensitivity. The orchestra also plays
very well and Marin Alsop conducts with her customary conviction.
Harris has been well served in Denver.
The recorded sound
is very good indeed. As I’ve already indicated the liner notes
provide an excellent introduction to the music. The texts are
not included, though they can be downloaded from the Naxos website.
However, the choir’s diction is good and I doubt the lack of texts
will be a hindrance to English-speaking listeners.
The Naxos Harris cycle
has, therefore, been launched most auspiciously and I look forward
to future instalments. One passing thought. I wonder if Naxos
intend to commission new recordings of the Seventh and Ninth symphonies?
In a way that would be a surprise since they already have a very
fine coupling of these works in their catalogue (see reviews by
On the other hand I, for one, won’t be complaining if Naxos give
us a choice.
As for this present
disc, collectors need not hesitate. It’s a pleasure to recommend
this excellent disc.