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John Harbison
Four Songs of Solitude for Solo Violin; Variations for Violin, Clarinet, and Piano; Twilight Music for Violin, Horn, and Piano

Spectrum Concerts Berlin: Janine Jensen (violin), Lars Wouters van den Oudenweijer (clarinet), Bernard King (horn), Daniel Blumenthal (piano)
CD Number: Naxos 8.559173

Stephen Hartke
Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra, "Landscapes with Blues"; The Rose of the Winds for String Octet; Gradus for Bass Clarinet, Vibraphone, Piano, Violin, Cello, and Double Bass; Pacific Rim for Chamber Orchestra

Richard Stoltzman, Clarinet; Michael Stern conducting the IRIS Chamber Orchestra

CD Number: Naxos 8.559201

Review By Max Westler
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CD Number: See above 

 

  Harbison The Elder Statesman

American composer John Harbison, now a youthful 66, belongs to a diverse and remarkable generation that includes Charles Wuorinen, Mario Davidovsky, Bernard Rands, David Del Tredici, John Corigliano, William Bolcolm, Richard Wernick, Ellen Taft Zwilich, Steve Reich and (best known of all) Phillip Glass.

Having begun his long and prolific career as a student of both the serialist Roger Sessions and the ultraconservative Walter Piston, Harbison has tried to steer a middle course between the more demanding (Wuorinen, Rands) and the more communicative (Bolcolm, Glass) of his contemporaries, creating a rich and highly complex musical language that he has expressed in a dazzling array of traditional forms -- not just operas, quartets, ballets, song cycles, piano sonatas, symphonies and concertos, but also madrigals, motets, and cantatas.

If some have found his longer and thornier scores, at least in part, a little dry and over intellectualized, the three chamber pieces assembled on the present disc prove that Harbison can speak with a simplicity and directness that are deeply affecting. It's almost as if Harbison wanted to curb his tendency to be ambitious and expansive, for all the music presented here is deliberately restricted in terms of both duration and instrumentation. The longest section in any of the three works clocks in at 4m35s, with many much shorter than that. Nine of the 16 variations are just under or over a minute.

It is Harbison's genius that for all the leanness and severity of means that he employs, the music sounds rich and expressive throughout. Here, as in a good poem, compression equals intensity. In its very eventful twenty-two minutes, "Variations" juxtaposes contrary and rapidly changing moods: longing and reflection, shades of light and dark, tranquility and restlessness. In "Twilight Music," the uneasy relationship between horn and violin is characterized by shifting emotional colors that take us from the flowing dance-like figure of the first movement to the solemn adagio of the last.

For me the highlight of the disc is the "Four Songs of Solitude," which Harbison composed as an anniversary gift for his wife, the violinist Rose Mary Harbison. The soloist here is Janine Jensen, and her playing of this luminous, flowing, and intimate music is both virtuosic and deeply felt. It is worth the (incredibly small) price of the disc just to have made her acquaintance.

 

Hartke The Mover and Shaker

It is surprising how often the history of art seems to follow the oedipal model of warring generations. In this instance, it's easy to cast the traditional-minded Harbison as stern father and postmodernist Hartke as rebellious son. In contrast to Harbison's high seriousness and somber tones, Hartke is cheeky, freewheeling, and self-consciously eclectic. 

The present disc contains two of his most engaging and characteristic works. "Pacific Rim," the piece that first established his reputation, was commissioned by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra to honor the city Hartke now calls home. Though in structure the piece is relatively straightforward (a prelude followed by a fugue), the music is full of surprising turns, and manages to be as disparate and brightly colored as the cultural landscape it celebrates. 

The Clarinet Concerto is more ambitious and comes with a program. Subtitled "Landscapes with Blues," the music follows the history of the blues from the West African region of "Senegambia," where the storytelling tradition known as griot singing became one of the roots of American blues; to the Mississippi Delta, where we hear a ghostly blues echoing through the sultry night; and finally to the cities of the North, where hard-driving dances and torchy ballads bring the piece to its close. 

Though this may all sound too literal, if not unlikely, Hartke's innate musicality makes it work, and one can enjoy this rambunctious score on its own merits and without any reference to the program. With Richard Stoltzman playing at his most committed and soulful, one could almost convince oneself that here at last is an American clarinet concerto that can stand comparison to Copland's.

The two shorter pieces that fill out the disc -- ''The Rose of the Winds" and "Gradus" -- are quieter, more subdued works, but both have their charms and are well worth hearing.

 

In Conclusion

I've already singled out Janine Johnson's stunning contribution on the Harbison disc; but in fact, all the playing on both these discs testifies to the obvious love and understanding the performers bear these two composers. As for the sound, it is what one has come to expect from Naxos: clear, balanced, and just a little dry, but with a very realistic and clearly defined image that lets you hear where every note is coming from. Again one has to thank Naxos for taking such chances with new music, for bringing us such rich and entertaining music in definitive performances and superior sound. At the company's bargain basement prices, you can take both these wonderful discs home for pocket change. Enthusiastically recommended.

 

 

Ratings for both Harbison/Hartke

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