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Jack Sullivan
American Record Guide, March 2011

It is hard to believe that Roy Harris wrote 13 symphonies as well as numerous programmatic works, chamber pieces, and the nearly hour’s worth of piano music on this pioneering CD. I remember Leonard Bernstein championing some of his symphonies, but he is largely obscure to the general public, a “composer’s composer” at best. Yet as these sonatas, folkloric pastiches, variations, and dance pieces illustrate, Harris is both a great original and a highly enjoyable composer. Yes, the big pieces like the 1928 Sonata are full of massive polytonal chords and disjunct patterns, but the effect is one of majestic expansiveness and austere ecstasy. There is nothing remotely alienating or self-indulgently “modern” here: this music reaches out and grabs your imagination. Some of the Americana—‘Streets of Laredo’, ‘Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair’—is instantly recognizable, though Harris subjects these tunes to chordal variations that make them his own, much as Bach did with Lutheran hymns or Schubert with drinking songs.

For me the most impressive works (inspired mostly by his wife, the pianist Johana Harris), are the more abstract ones, the sonata and suites. Without relying on American markers such as folk songs they convey an unmistakable American openness and expansiveness. Geoffrey Burleson plays them all with imposing sonority or simple charm, as required.



Bob Briggs
MusicWeb International, January 2011

These days, Roy Harris is remembered as the composer of a famous 3rd Symphony, who wrote a lot of other Symphonies, but whose other music is hardly known, let alone heard. There is a school of thought which believes that beyond the 3rd Symphony most of his work isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. Certainly there appears to be a lack of self-criticism on Harris’s part which allowed less well constructed and written works out into the public arena. Works such as the Concerto for Piano, Clarinet and String Quartet, op. 2 (1927), String Quartet No.3, Four Preludes and Fugues (1937), Violin Sonata (1941) and the chamber cantata Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight (1953), not to mention the orchestral works When Johnny Comes Marching Home: An American Overture (1934), the Violin Concerto (1949) and the 1st (1933) and 7th (1955) Symphonies show a composer of real stature. The chamber works could so easily be programmed but they’re not and our not hearing them is our loss, and a significant loss at that.

None of the pieces on this disk could be claimed to be major works but there are some very attractive and interesting things nonetheless. The two sets of American Ballads use folk-tunes, such as The Streets of Laredo and When Johnny Comes Marching Home, and are delightful suites with some nice quirky turns of phrase. In feel they are reminiscent of Barber’s Excursions for piano and would enrich any recital of modernish piano music. The early Sonata is a tersely argued work in four succinct movements, and it’s easy to see why the original scherzo wouldn’t have fitted into Harris’s scheme of things. The Piano Suite is another strong work; the first movement is bold and brassy, demonstrative and forthright, the middle movement pensive and the finale a French flavoured gigue.

For the rest we have six miniatures. The Toccata contains elements of both the headlong rush you’d expect from such a work, and short reflective interludes. The Variations on an American Folksong, True Love Don’t Weep starts in a most serious manner, becomes lighter then just as you think it’s going somewhere it stops! Untitled is, I believe, the earliest piece we know by Harris and it’s very strange, questing and angular, almost tuneless and imbued with an otherworldly feel. Little Suite is fun, this could almost be a teaching piece. A Happy Piece for Shirley is a delightful tribute. Orchestrations, a strange title for a solo piano piece, especially from someone as adept at orchestration as Harris, is very serious and profound.

Whilst most of these works have been recorded before, it’s good to have them collected together on one disk, and although none of them can claim pretensions to be a lost masterpiece, they are more than mere chippings off the block of genius. The performances have an air of authority about them and the recording is clean and clear. The notes, if not exhaustive, are helpful. Essential for anyone investigating the Symphonies which Naxos is in the process of recording and there are works here which pianists should be investigating when seeking something piquant for their recitals.



James Manheim
Allmusic.com, November 2010

Roy Harris’ symphonies are played much less than they once were, and the piano pieces on this album go all but unheard on recitals. It may be time for a revival of Harris’ music in general, for he had a distinctive style that avoided populism, Romantic models, and European systematizing. Furthermore, unlike Copland, he did not change his style to catch the prevailing winds. This fine disc could make a good place to start with his music, for despite the small scale of the pieces (unlike the symphonies) they fuse the diverse elements of his style equally fully. This is the appeal of Harris’ music: there are spacious chords that evoke the American landscape (quite similar in impulse to the Copland “Western” sonority); elements of medieval and Renaissance music absorbed from Debussy and Satie via his teacher, Nadia Boulanger; cluster-like and polytonal experiments; jazz and blues; and an engagement with folk music that’s quite unlike Copland’s. In the two sets of American ballads Harris deploys his quite dissonant harmonic language to interpret the tune, somewhat in the manner of an art song accompaniment, rather than striving for a naïve simplicity. Sample the setting of Streets of Laredo (track 9) and then move on to the remarkable Piano Sonata, Op. 1, of 1928, which puts all of these elements together save the folk influence despite the fact that it’s less than 12 minutes long and is divided into four distinct sections. It’s a remarkably compact and cohesive piece. As pianist Geoffrey Burleson puts it in his notes (in English only), much of the music here can put one in mind of an American version of Hindemith and Bartók, even though Harris’ style was formed independently of those composers. The four miniatures of the Little Suite (1938) are the equal of those in Bartók’s Mikrokosmos. The program concludes with several world premieres of odd pages from Harris’ piano output; they’re not on a level with the rest of the music, but the entire disc is something of an adventure in rediscovery. Burleson plays everything cleanly and enthusiastically. Recommended for any fan of American music.



Cinemusical, October 2010

Roy Harris is best known for his 13 symphonies, and in particular the third of those. Still, to have written less than an hour of piano music in his entire career seems sparse, especially when many were inspired by his pianist wife, Johanna. The sole sonata for the instrument, which opens this disc, comes from 1928 while he was still studying in Paris with Nadia Boulanger. The last is a brief (one-and-a-half minute) work from 1972, seven years before his death.

The 1928 sonata bears an “Opus 1” designation indicating Harris’ sense of its importance. The piece is in four movements that play without pause and encapsulate his style of open tonality, polytonality, and florid musical lines suggesting Medieval chant. It is in some respects an exercise that reminds one of Debussy’s exploration of the piano and open tonality in The Sunken Cathedral. The “Scherzo” hints at the more playful side of the composer. The 1938 “Little Suite” is another trifle filled with four exquisite miniatures.

In 1942, Harris embarked on adapting folk songs in what he envisioned as a contemporary exploration of “American Ballads.” These will be among the little surprises for those unfamiliar with his piano works. These pieces quote, or plainly state popular folk songs, though they are cast in Harris’ polytonal language and feature the sort of open harmonies that he was exploring. American folkloric music was truly in the air in the 1940s and these pieces have a bit more complexity than the somewhat streamlined work of Copland. These works too sound a bit like an extension of Debussy, though are by no means Impressionistic in style. There are five of these settings arranged as set one, but only two in the second set. Highlights from both include a fascinating setting of “The Streets of Laredo,” a dark “Wayfaring Stranger”, some blues like harmonies in “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” and a mysterious setting of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” in set two.

The other substantial work here is the three-movement Piano Suite written between 1939 and 1942. Once again, quotations of folk music make up the primary musical materials here with African call and response patterns and a hymn tune being primary melodies spread across the suite. The music is set in open intervals and makes full use of the range of the keyboard.

There are several other shorter pieces that help fill out the album: a set of variations, a brilliant Toccata illustrating Harris’ interest of Baroque forms, an untitled piece from 1926, an original version of the sonata’s “Scherzo” movement, a brief piece for a friend, and the afore-mentioned late work, Orchestrations.

Throughout, one gets a sense that the piano pieces were exercises In exploring the sonorities that Harris could so brilliantly manipulate in larger ensembles. Here they are stripped bare reveal a simplicity of expression in often deeply personal music. Geoffrey Burleson uses the published editions of these works as his musical text and provides what are likely definitive performances of these pieces. You will not find a more engaging performance recorded in a beautifully warm acoustic that is near perfect. This release will be a welcome addition to fans of American music and Roy Harris.



David Denton
David's Review Corner, October 2010

Roy Harris’s reputation as one of the leading American composers of the 20th century largely resides with his thirteen symphonies. Though he was to compose in other genres, his total piano works number just eleven and last under the hour. Only the Piano Sonata and Piano Suite are of substance the remaining works being cameos. His early musical education did not point in any specific direction and he was already twenty-eight when a meeting with Copland persuaded him to seek formal composition tuition with the great pedagogue, Nadia Boulenger, in Paris. His return to the States was marked by a symphony written at the behest of the conductor, Koussevitzky. The much welcomed composition was soon followed by the critically acclaimed Third Symphony that captured international attention. That impact he was to repeat with his Forth Symphony, yet for all the critical enthusiasm—and I have contributed much—his remaining symphonies never entered the concert repertoire. So his later reputation resides in the following generation of American composers who owe much to his teaching. Certainly those who know his symphonies will find little correlation with his works for keyboard. They are tonal in content, tinged with Americana, sometimes sounding a little short of memorable thematic material. Maybe the key lies in track 22—the original Scherzo to the Piano Sonata, surely more interesting than the Scherzo he retained, and that points a lack of judgement. That, together with the an untitled piece, A Happy Piece for Shirley and Orchestrations, are all receiving their first recordings. Try the first set of American Ballads (tracks 9–13) as a sampler to the style of the whole disc. The soloist is the much travelled American pianist, Geoffrey Burleson, and the sound is first class.



Laima
WRUV Reviews, October 2010

American composer Harris (1898–1979) was influenced by French composers, and Irish music amongst other elements. Definitely modern, some impressionistic. Try all!






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