About this Recording
8.573532 - HARRIS, Ross: Symphony No. 5 / Violin Concerto (Gringolts, S.-A. Russell, Auckland Philharmonia, Stier, G. Walker)

Ross Harris (b. 1945)
Violin Concerto • Symphony No. 5


Ross Harris was born in Amberley, New Zealand. He studied in Christchurch and Wellington and taught at the Victoria University of Wellington Music Department for over thirty years. In 1985 he was awarded a QSM for his opera Waituhi (with libretto by Witi Ihimaera) and in 1990 he received the CANZ Citation for services to New Zealand music. Since 2004 he has worked as a freelance composer including residencies with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra and Victoria University. His relationship with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra has been unique as they have (in ten years) given the première of five symphonies and his Cello Concerto, all written for the orchestra. Harris has been been a finalist in or awarded the SOUNZ Contemporary Award (the most prestigious annual prize offered in New Zealand) more times than any other New Zealand composer.

Harris’s Violin Concerto No. 1 was commissioned by Christopher Marshall for the English violinist Anthony Marwood and premièred by him with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and conductor Tecwyn Evans in 2010. Symphony No. 5 was inspired by the poetry of Hungarian poet Panni Palasti and funded by Christopher Marshall. The première was given by alto Sally-Anne Russell and the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra under the baton of Eckehard Stier, in Auckland Town Hall in 2013.


Ross Harris’s Violin Concerto has a strange effect on the listener, who seems to be almost drawn into its creation. It starts hesitantly, the soloist on his own playing fragmentary ideas: then the clarinet enters and his brief melody invites the other woodwind to join him. In effect, the beautifully textured concerto, hovering tantalisingly between tonality and atonality, is at last under way.

The soloist is hardly ever out of the limelight, decorating and rhapsodising on the material. Then the orchestra arrives on a hushed, seamless chord, over which the soloist reflects on its melodic ideas and draws them together. The concerto ends with the orchestra finally bowing out, leaving the soloist to return to the same fragments with which the concerto opened. It is a work that captures perfectly the essence of our time—a work of extraordinary and haunting beauty.

The emotional core of Harris’s Fifth Symphony comes from three tender, slender settings of poems by Panni Palasti. The poems are crucial to the whole symphony as even in the instrumental movements that surround the songs it is Palasti’s story that drives the music. That’s not to say that the instrumental movements are in the same vein as the three songs, indeed they aren’t, but one can hear that the violence in the scherzos is a reflection of what Palasti tells, and the beautiful slow movements which open and close the whole work are like a consolation for the horrors that Palasti lived through as a child. The words of the poems are unfailingly simple, childlike, honest, frightening but relentlessly unsentimental.

And it is that lack of sentimentality that is the key to Harris’s setting—he treats them as though they were innocent folksongs—and it is this that gives them their quiet dignity. They are gentle melodies backed with hushed, sophisticated orchestration.

When the jackboots and military bands march in, in the first scherzo, we feel the horror all the more for the contrasting peace of the songs in which one senses the young Palasti hiding. The second scherzo may be more restrained and delicate in its string based scoring but is just as disturbing as the military march sounds of the earlier scherzo, only this time I could only think of ghostly, cemetery dance like images.

The first movement is as dark and austere as a Hotere painting. Over a long held bass note streams of quiet woodwind counterpoint wind out; of course it looks back to Bach, but there are moments too of Lilburn, hints of electroacoustic sound, a sense of never-ending logic that looks always forward. Eventually the strings in unison are persuaded to add their contrapuntal line to what is one of Harris’s great symphonic movements.

The last movement, a slow movement again, seems to brood over what we have already heard and it ends quietly, but there is a sense that the minor chord, high up in the strings, that Harris is looking for is hard to find. With bass grumblings still referring back to the symphony’s opening it is an uneasy, strangely disturbing quiet the composer has to offer.

Rod Biss

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