HARRIS: Symphony No. 3 (1938). Symphony No. 4 "Folk Song Symphony" for
orchestra and chorus (1939).
Colorado Symphony Chorus; Colorado Symphony/Marin Alsop, cond.
Naxos 8.559227 (B) (DDD) TT: 58:47
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A protégé of Bernstein, Marin Alsop performs here Harris's
Third, one of Bernstein's party pieces. He recorded it at least twice (I
prefer the earlier stereo version with the New York Phil - Sony 60594).
Alsop's Fourth restores to the catalogue one of Harris's most interesting
scores. On paper, at any rate, this looks like a good deal.
I've found Alsop's recordings maddeningly inconsistent over the years.
She can deliver with eloquence, or she can bore the Lederhosen off you.
As far as her contribution to this CD goes, she's done a terrific job,
providing vital readings of these two scores. Her recording of the Third
differs from Bernstein's in that she makes the work move less like an epic,
more like a lyric poem -- as it turns out, a legitimate approach. The Third,
like almost all of Harris's music, primarily moves through counterpoint.
Alsop's slightly scaled-back point of view allows you to hear the lines
clearly. Koussevitzky called this score the "first great symphony
by an American composer." He was mistaken, of course (Ives and Copland
had already written great symphonies, as had Harris), but not about the
quality of the work.
On repeated listening, it turns out that this score is hardly a likely
candidate for Great Symphony. Indeed, it seems as though Harris has pulled
off the impossible. The phrases move in fragments, sometimes ending on
an "extra step," like a dancer who goes on a beat too long or
ends on the wrong foot, almost like a stumble. The harmonies, though eminently
tonal, lie in weird territory. The form of the work -- a single movement
in five large pieces -- seems discombobulated. No section has an obvious
connection with another. Yet, somehow Harris brings all of this mess into
order. The counterpoint absolutely amazes -- non-academic, although it
ends with a vigorous fugue. Bits that shouldn't go together fit with the
click of a well-made box. Despite the different sections, the listener
traverses the symphony in one large arc. One thing leads to another with,
to quote Bernstein on Beethoven, "inevitability." Written almost
seventy years ago, Harris's score continues to shine like a new morning.
Harris's Fourth, finished shortly after the Third, represents Harris's
take on folk music. Most music historians and critics credit Virgil Thomson
with showing American composers how to put American folk music to Modernist
purposes. Aaron Copland publicly acknowledged his debt. Harris lies closer
to Copland than to Thomson, but all three manage to integrate folk melody
into their own individual idioms. Harris wrote his Fourth for community
chorus and orchestra. The choral writing hasn't the complexity of his a
cappella pieces. Nevertheless, each movement burns white-hot with
inspiration. Harris gives you a very personal take on such chestnuts as "Streets
of Laredo," "The Girl I Left Behind Me," and "The Trumpet
Sounds in-a My Soul," among others. There's not a weak moment in the
entire score. Harris takes familiar -- even over-familiar -- tunes and
bends them in extremely interesting ways. Yet, for some reason, it never
into a convincing whole. In seven movements -- "The Girl I Left Behind
Me" (fast), "Western Cowboy" (slow), "Interlude: Dance
Tunes for Strings and Percussion" (fast), "Mountaineer Love Song" (slow), "Interlude:
Dance Tunes for Full Orchestra" (fast), "Negro Fantasy" (slow),
and "Johnny Comes Marching Home" (fast) -- it may run longer
than it should. I wonder what would happen if you cut two of the slow movements.
I'd choose "Western Cowboy" and "Mountaineer Love Song" and
move "Negro Fantasy" to the middle. I believe the symphony would
move more convincingly, without the kind of backtracking that three long
slow movements, similar in mood, introduce to the work. Nothing is wrong
with the any of these movements per se. Indeed you could pick
any of the three slow movements to the same effect. I just happen to like
As I've said, of the recorded performances of the Third I've encountered,
I regard the Sony Bernstein as the one to beat. However, there are at least
two recordings of Koussevitzky out there, and those have every chance of
being considerable, even in mono. It says much for Alsop that Bernstein's
reading doesn't blow hers away. She takes a different and valid approach
and consequently opens up the symphony, makes you see it in new ways. The
long-time only recording of Harris's Fourth was Abravanel's with the Utah
(nla), although Vladimir Golshmann let an earlier one -- as far as I'm
concerned, not really acceptable. I always liked Abravanel's music-making
as well as his repertoire -- a conductor who doesn't get much credit nowadays.
The sound of the Utah Symphony couldn't compete with its glossier compatriots,
but it played with a sense of conviction. Alsop's Colorado Symphony matches
their conviction and plays better. However, the chorus really isn't up
to Abravanel's, which I suspect of containing ringers from BYU. The Colorado
singers really are Harris's community chorus. They tend to poop out over
the long haul. Cutoffs are ragged, but not terrible enough to ruin the
performance. Also, Alsop's orchestra crackles and pops. If the "Folksong
Symphony" intrigues you, this is the disc to get.
S.G.S. (January 2007)