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Roy Harris
Acceleration; Symphony No. 5; Symphony No. 6, 'Gettysburg' 
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop, conductor
Review By Joe Milicia

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  Roy Harris' Third Symphony of 1938 (in one movement) remains one of the masterpieces of American music, and has had its champions over the years, from Serge Koussevitzky (who premiered and recorded it) to Leonard Bernstein (who recorded it twice) and Leonard Slatkin (once). But Harris wrote thirteen symphonies (plus one for voices only and the "West Point Symphony" for concert band), and only on rare occasions have any of them been performed, much less recorded, by major orchestras. Thus it is gratifying that Marin Alsop whose Samuel Barber series for Naxos has been overall superb is recording Harris. Her renditions of Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4 (the latter a choral "Folk Song Symphony") with the Colorado Symphony have already appeared; now Naxos has released Nos. 5 and 6, plus a short bonus piece, with the Bournemouth Symphony in superb sound.

All the works on the present CD date from the War Years, 1941 to 1944, and certainly have a predominantly somber quality, though with moments of exultation all the same. To be sure, the same could be said for Harris' symphonies of the 1930s. His musical style in the 40s, instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with the Third Symphony, features the "American" sound one also associates with Aaron Copland (say, the latter's own Third Symphony), but the rich modal harmonies and the treatment of the brass in particular, plus a debt both to Sibelius (evolution of symphonic themes though fragmentary buildup) and Renaissance church composers (polyphony, antiphonal choirs), are distinctive of Harris. The CD offers the works in reverse order of composition, but I'll comment on them from earliest to latest.

The worthwhile "filler" on the CD is Acceleration, a 7-minute work that starts out as a funeral march but you guessed it accelerates, though not to any extreme degree, as in, say, Honegger's Pacific 231. It just becomes more jubilant and vigorous, with passages in 3/4 rhythm, and actually slows down at the end. David Truslove's booklet note mentions that Harris revised the work in 1942 but presumably the 1941 original is being performed, since that's the date attached to the title. He also mentions that the musical material was "recycled" in the Sixth Symphony, but I can't help but ask if this is a mistake, since the second movement of the Fifth Symphony opens with the same funeral-march theme. (Perhaps there is more subtle use of the material in the Sixth.) Overall, I wouldn't want to argue that Acceleration is a major discovery, but it's a pleasant addition to the Harris catalogue.

The Fifth Symphony, premiered in early 1943 by Koussevitzky and his Boston Symphony, was dedicated to the U.S. 's "great ally, the Union of Soviet Republics," and broadcast to the Soviet Union as well as to American troops around the world. These circumstances indicate that the Fifth should or at least could be classified as a "War" symphony (especially when one recalls that Shostakovich's "Leningrad" Symphony was broadcast from the Soviet Union to the West a year earlier), but the opening movement is rather exuberant. There is a skipping 6/8 rhythm that opens the symphony (think the famous rhythm of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony's first movement). Truslove calls it a "call-to-arms type gesture," but surely the treatment of it in the following bars is too genial for that. There are some rousing passages that follow, with a disconcerting quotation (conscious or not?) of the trumpet fanfare that opens American horse races. A slowdown of the dotted-eighth rhythm ends the movement.

As I've mentioned, the second movement does begin with a funeral march. The heavy rhythmic tread very gradually fades, but the mood remains somber downcast yet yearning. There is an impassioned section with melodic material given to the strings; the pace accelerates to a climax which gradually subsides, with choirs of winds, especially brass, adding their own accents to the strings' restlessness. A brass chorale quiets things down, and the movement ends with antiphonal responses between (mainly) brass and strings. The finale is fugal, beginning starkly with a statement of material to be used but soon becoming light-textured and playful, with a return of the dotted rhythm of the first movement. A piano, though never soloistic, lends its color to most of the movement, and snare drum and other percussion fortify the conclusion. Overall, the Fifth Symphony strikes me as more "absolute" music than as a piece with a program about struggle and hope, for example.

In 1982 I saw Rafael Kubelik conduct this work with the Chicago Symphony the featured work in the second half of a concert that opened with Barber and Norman Dello Joio. I remember it being an exciting performance, especially the French-horn opening with the dotted rhythm, but I haven't been able to compare my recollections with the taping on the limited-edition "From the Archives" set issued by the CSO years ago. Marin Alsop certainly gets splendid playing from Bournemouth (she is "Emeritus" Conductor of that orchestra), with especially warm, rich sounds from the brass. I did wonder, however, if another orchestra or conductor could have brought greater tension and power in the buildup to the climax of the symphony's final pages.

Once again premiered by Boston under Koussevitzky, in 1944, the Sixth Symphony too seems to me to work well enough as "abstract" music, though it most definitely has a program. Dedicated to "the Armed Forces of Our Nation," it alludes to the Gettysburg Address in its four movement titles: Awakening, Conflict, Dedication, and Affirmation. The opening movement is "dawn" music: delicate fragments of themes, gentle chords (with effective use of the vibraphone), then woodwind figures that sound like birdcalls, and finally the splendor of the whole orchestra. The second movement is "battle" music, though with gradual shifting from one menacing moment to the next, rather than with sudden outbursts or the frenetic hysteria in some comparable "scenes" in Shostakovich. One passage has a galumphing rhythm that very much recalls a rhythm in the first movement of Ralph Vaughan Williams' devastating Fourth Symphony. "Conflict" abruptly halts rather than comes to a conventional conclusion.

"Dedication," the longest movement, is an "after-the-battle" slow movement, though not so much bleak or despairing as tenderly sad and wistful. The finale, like that of the Fifth Symphony, is fugal though mostly slow-paced, with fragments of themes complexly passed back and forth until the "Affirmation" of the final pages. Overall, I found that Alsop and Bournemouth leave nothing to be desired in terms of pacing, orchestral color and passionate commitment.

Naxos' cover art, a rather wan picture of Lincoln posing on the Gettysburg platform, doesn't do justice to the vigor and modernism of the music. But their engineers have done full justice to the Bournemouth Symphony, with resplendent, realistic sound and beautiful balance among the string and wind choirs, so essential to any Harris symphony performance.

 

 

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