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Colin Clarke
Fanfare, April 2007

The performance of Harbison's North and South that begins this disc effectively acts as a memorial to the huge talent that was Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who died of cancer in July 2006. A setting of six poems of Elizabeth Bishop divided into two "books" of three poems each, it is a work marked by its economy of utterance and scoring. The work's premiere took place in 2000 in a version for voice and piano, but with Janice Felty as soloist. The Chicago Chamber Musicians commissioned the ensemble version that is heard here.

It is difficult to imagine a more persuasive advocate than Hunt Lieberson (she is actually the dedicatee of the first book, while the second is dedicated to Felty). Hunt Lieberson understands each and every twist and turn of Harbison's wandering phrases, while the Chicago Chamber Musicians reveal quicksilver responses to the accompaniments. Harbison is an expert orchestrator, painting moods with consummate ease. At the heart of Hunt Lieberson's achievement is her easy artistry. Everything sounds so natural. Her pitching is preternaturally accurate, her slurs astonishingly clean, and her tone is even throughout the whole of her range. Perhaps the highlight of the six movements is the fifth, called merely "Song," a nearly unbearable evocation of departed summer.

Six American Painters is a succession of vignettes on six painters (the starting point was actual specific paintings, but the scope soon enlarged). The version of the score heard here is for flute and string trio (there exists a version for oboe and strings). Mathieu Dufour is the excellent flutist. All four soloists, though, soak up Harbison's economic and effective writing. The six painters are Bingham, Eakins, Heade, Homer, Hoffman, and Diebenkorn.

The inclusion of a narrated segment from the 1998 Christmas Vespers is an interesting idea. "The Three Wise Men" is scored for narrator and brass quintet. It begins as if launching into I saw three ships before carving out its own jazz-inflected trajectory. The Prelude requires tight rhythmic playing, and this it receives in no short measure here. There are shades of Bernstein here, too. Harbison alternates what he calls brass "engravings" with spoken narrative from Matthew's Gospel. He also equates the Three Wise Men with trumpet, horn, and trombone, while Herod speaks through the voice of the tuba.

Begun in 1973 with a setting of "Um Mitternacht" for D'Anna Fortunato, the Book of Hours eventually became a set of Goethe poems for voice, flute, cello, and piano. ("Um Mitternacht" is the final one.) From bleak beginnings, the piece visits a variety of moods, from the jazzy rhythms of "Immer und überall," the dark "Interlude," the autumnal "Mich änstigt das Verfängliche," to the still “Um Mitternacht." Unfortunately, Emily Lodine suffers in comparison with Hunt Lieberson, her voice a little tremulous. Yet the score remains a haunting one.

Very definitely a disc to investigate.



Andrew Druckenbrod
Gramophone, February 2007

Songs of life from the much-missed singer crown a fine American collection

This disc showcases American composer John Harbison's creativity in chamber music but it is a performance by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson that most captivates with bittersweet beauty. Hunt Lieberson, who died in July at the age of 52, was in her prime when she recorded Harbison's North and South in 2001. She had successfully debuted as the Metropolitan Opera only two years earlier - in Harbison's The Great Gatsby - and in this recording she again displays her deep understanding of the composer's desires in his "bygone-era" music.

North and South sets poems by Elizabeth Bishop, exquisite songs of life outside the stereotyped American dream. Harbison catches the mood perfectly and Hunt Lieberson injects a sultry timbre into her lustrous realisations. Especially in the two "Ballads for Billie", she cultivates a gorgeous hybrid between opera and blues. Members of The Chicago Chamber Musicians, who perform throughout in different combinations, support her with evocative and near-flawless playing.

Six American Painters for flute, violin, viola and cello is a "general impression" of the style of six artists, its prorammatic nature secondary to the captivating moods Harbison creates. Flautist Mathieu Dufour and his colleagues play the intriguing movements with warmth and precision.

Tight ensemble is also centre-stage in The Three Wise Men for brass instruments and narrator. The two trumpeters, horn player, trombone and tuba here showcase an uncommon unity. Harbison's depiction of the wise men through quasi-medieval strains and Herod through a ranging tuba (played with gusto by Craig Knox), almost takes a back seat to simply listening to the spot-on performance by the quintet.

Written in 1975 for voice (here felicitous mezzo Emily Lodine), flute, cello and piano, the Goether settings in Book of Hours and Seasons find Harbison playing with styles, such as minimalism, to good effect, but not quite with the confidence of his later aesthetic.




Gimbel
BBC Music Magazine, February 2007

This is a rather haphazard collection of chamber works by John Harbison, who, we are told, "is distinguished by [his] exceptional range". True enough, but there are better ways to get a hold on this exceptional figure than through this disconnected effort, which nevertheless does still contain some fine music. North and South (1999) is a set of six commentaries on relationships by the wonderful Elizabeth Bishop, dispensed in two three­poem "books". They were originally scored for mezzo and piano but arranged in 2001 for strings (violin, viola, cello, and contrabass). Each book opens with a 'Ballad for Billie' (Holiday), which Harbison harmonizes in thick­brush-stroke blues style. I've always thought "concert hall blues" sound stupid with operatic voice, so the charm of these songs is lost on me (operatic Gershwin is lost on me also). The remaining songs are less stylized, and thus more effective in the long run. I haven't heard these in their original voice-and-piano settings, but I'm guessing they might be more intimate that way. The late Ms Lieberson is in fine voice, as usual.

Six American Painters (2002) joins Dan Locklair's Reynolda Reflections (MIA 2005) as a miniature musical exhibition of American art of the last couple of centuries. This piece could have been called "Museum of Modern Art Reflections", since these paintings were all seen by Harbison there in New York. Both Harbison and Locklair set their abstract feelings toward these painters for flute solo and small chamber group (Locklair's for cello and piano, Harbison's string trio). The painters observed, none of them duplicated by Locklair, are George Caleb Bingham, Thomas Eakins, Martin Johnson Heade (he gets the best piece), Winslow Homer, and Richard Diebenkorn. (The fifth painter is "Hoffman", but I don't know who that is, and the notes don't say.) Harbison's little pieces are pleasant enough, though I get no particular sense of the relations between painting and music. The composer writes that he was going for "general impressions". Flutists might be interested, but this is not top-drawer Harbison.

On a completely different topic, The Three Wise Men (1988) is a Christmas work for brass quintet and narrator, originally premiered on CBS with the late, great Charles Kuralt; Bill Kurtis fills in here admirably, reading Matthew 2:1-12 with great finesse. The Wise Men are personified by a brass trio (trumpet, horn, and trombone, in Hindemithian-medieval style), while Herod is played by a blustering tuba (well played by Craig Knox). The higher trumpet is the Star and Prophecies, with plaincham flavor. The piece would make a lovely addition to Christmas proceedings. Harbison's beautiful brass writing is played with great virtuosity.

The program concludes with Book of Hours and Seasons, relatively early Goethe settings from 1975 for mezzo, flute, cello, and piano.

This is mostly fine music. Texts are included, along with notes by the composer.



Elissa Poole
The Globe and Mail, November 2006

The star attraction of this disc is mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's performance of North and South, John Harbison's setting of six poems by Elizabeth Bishop. Lieberson, who died last July of breast cancer, was a singer of exceptional gifts, not the least of which was a capacity to express both a quality and its opposite. Thus her radiant sound contained the cloud as well as the silver lining, and though she could deliver a phrase with more palpable joy than any almost other singer, the possibility of loss is there to hear. Stylistically, too, Lieberson dissolved boundaries as needed: There's even a suspicion that a popular singer lurked behind the classical stylist, just in case.



Robert Everett-Green
The Globe and Mail, October 2006

Poet Elizabeth Bishop's bittersweet meditation on the warmth of love and the eternal chill of death sounds especially pensive in this chamber-ensemble setting by composer John Harbison. The late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson gives a beautifully clear and touching rendition of the vocal part.






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4:04:56 PM, 20 September 2014
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