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BBC Music Magazine, October 2016

It was Copland who recommended that the Oklahoma-born, California-raised Roy Harris go to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger. He was soon on the path to becoming a prolific composer with 13 symphonies to his name. His Third (1938) was hailed as ‘the first great symphony by an American composer’ by the conductor Serge Koussevitzky, while his Fourth drew on the fount of American traditional and folk melodies. The colourful Folksong Symphony is a seven-movement work for chorus and orchestra, with its opening and closing movements based on the Civil War songs ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’ and ‘Johnny Comes Marching Home’. In between, we get cowboy and mountaineer songs, spirituals, and two orchestral interludes. © 2016 BBC Music Magazine

Peter Dickinson
Gramophone, December 2012

The Specialist’s Guide To…The golden age of the American symphony: #7

For at least a generation this was regarded as the greatest American symphony: Koussevitzky hailed it after the premiere (his recording is in a Koussevitzky box-set on Membran Artone). The Third is the obvious choice since it established Harris and is a concise example of his single-movement design. His reputation has faded but Bernstein knew how to give the ending intensity (DG, 11/87, coupled with Schuman’s Third) and Alsop now carries the torch. © 2012 Gramophone

Brian Wilson
MusicWeb International, April 2010

I echo John Quinn, who found it a pleasure to recommend the excellent first CD in this series, coupling the well-known Third with the less familiar Fourth…a symphony based on Western songs such as The girl I left behind me may sound rather gash, but it isn’t; it’s no undiscovered masterpiece, but, like JQ, I think it attractive.

Bob Neill
Positive Feedback Online, March 2010

…Symphony No. 3 (1938), like much of Copland’s music, builds melodic moods with the black notes, moods he and his fellow romantics have accustomed us to so they no longer feel dark in and of themselves. They have become the cast we put on our romanticism. Here in Harris’s work, we go up and down the scale in some unnamed minor key, first with strings, then with strings and woodwinds. At some point a solo bassoon, oboe, and flute are feathered in, and finally the brass are admitted, led by solo horn and trumpet. The whole piece, once in motion, tends to remain in motion, helped along later by tympani which turns the proceedings into a gallop. (Harris grew up in Oklahoma.) This music was written before World War II broke out and gives voice to a national innocence that many Americans, though not many of its intelligentsia, shared. It is pastoral music which registers no significant change in its implied view of the world from music written a century before. Koussevitsky called it “the first great symphony by an American composer.”

Symphony No. 4 (1939) on the same disc amounts to seven popular folkish songs for chorus and orchestra and is several degrees lighter than its disc-mate. It really belongs in a pops concert where it would likely outshine most music around it. There is no hint of condescension, as there doubtless is in my writing about it. It gets more out of its material than anyone could expect, but a symphony it is not. The least familiar piece of the group, “Negro Fantasy,” is the most interesting, perhaps because I don’t know the two folk songs on which it is based or because they are so utterly (and effectively) transformed…

Penguin Guide, January 2009

Good news. This issue heralds the appearance of a complete cycle of the 13 symphonies of Harris, which Naxos are undertaking. The Third gets a rousing performance. The Fourth, Folk Song Symphony, offers colourful settings fro chorus and orchestra of five traditional songs, with two purely instrumental numbers, livelier than the rest, as interludes. An attractive novelty, but not the equal of either of its immediate neighbours.

Karl Lozier
Positive Feedback Online, April 2008

His Symphony No. 3 was called “the first great symphony by an American composer” by Serge Koussevitzky, the conductor of the Boston Symphony who led the premiere in 1939…Many if not most listeners, find his fourth symphony, the “Folk Song Symphony” to be their favorite…The particularly attractive choral movements are excellently sung here. They are also very clearly presented and reproduced…This composition should easily grow on most listeners. It is melodic and an important part of the development of American classical music. This superb series by Naxos deserves support by American listeners. The price is a bargain and the quality is very high. The orchestra and audio reproduction combination is truly excellent here if not quite as big, powerful and overpowering as a few other recent recordings. The clear and clean reproduction of the many bass thwacks is easily the equal of other recent recordings.

Bernard Holland
The New York Times, January 2007

ROY HARRIS’S Third and Fourth Symphonies represent the hopes and wishes of American composers in the 1930s, eager to find their own versions of the European tradition. Newly nourished, old-country weltschmerz would take on a wholesome color and be cleansed by America’s wide-open spaces. The style survives in Aaron Copland’s music by virtue of Copland’s superior talent, while composers like Mr. Harris and his compatriot Howard Hanson have ceded their stature to diverse energies like Elliott Carter, Steve Reich and an immensely powerful popular culture.

Marin Alsop and the Colorado Symphony Orchestra and Chorus remind us of an older musical America in a Naxos CD of those two Harris symphonies. Harris called the Fourth his “Folk Song Symphony,” though it is more accurately a five-part choral piece, with cowboys, marching bands and the Civil War all providing fodder.

The single-movement Third was taken up by Serge Koussevitzky’s Boston Symphony in 1939, and it made Mr. Harris’s reputation. Dark strings in unison at the start move slowly in wide skips and gather other instruments. Chirping winds, uneven meters and overlapping rhythms increase momentum and give way at the end to ominous timpani-driven chords.

In the Fourth Symphony Mr. Harris dresses up old favorite songs, dances and marches with his own little complications. I especially like “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie” moving between major and minor modes. The treatments are good-natured and not without interest although sometimes modest to a fault. On its own, music cannot describe a physical space—Oklahoma’s broad, flat terrain, for example—but knowing that Mr. Harris came from there makes the association of place with sound inescapable.

Ms. Alsop’s chorus is fine, and the Colorado players do well enough to make us grateful that recordings like this are around.

Colin Anderson
Fanfare, December 2006

That Roy Harris (1898–1979) is at last getting his due is good news. “This is the first release of a projected Naxos cycle of the 13 Roy Harris orchestral symphonies.” I quote from Naxos’s presentation. Questions: is Marin Alsop conducting them all, and where does Naxos’s announcement place its previous release of Harris’s Symphonies 8 and 9?

Answers to be received in time. Meanwhile, the great and wonderful Symphony No.3 kicks off a welcome cycle. Unfortunately, Alsop’s conducting of it is a disappointment. It’s not that she is unsympathetic; it’s more that she keeps the sweep and largesse of the music under wraps, and the honest and committed orchestral playing is rather lacking in color and dimension, strings somewhat thin. The real problem is having Leonard Bernstein’s DG recording with the New York Philharmonic in contention. Boy, does Lenny open up the music’s potential, and his earlier New York recording (CBS/Sony) was also terrific. Eduardo Mata (Dorian) opens up some small cuts. Put simply, Alsop’s account may be instinctive, but it is also tame and small scale in concept and projection, and not even a decent introduction to a masterpiece.

Symphony No.4, in seven movements, five of them choral, is an attractive synthesis of popular songs. In this carefully prepared account-as in No.3, there are times when more edge is needed. The charms of the music, Harris’s affection for it, and his skills at transforming it are lucidly presented, but something earthier and even more enlived is needed to match Harris’s pioneering spirit. No texts in Naxos’s booklet; these have to be downloaded.

American Record Guide, December 2006

Roy Harris can be difficult to warm up to. His orchestrations often sound astringent. In 3 and 7, for example, melodic string lines are often stark and unfriendly, brass is hawkish, woodwinds reticent, and percussion sometimes reduced to thumping bass pulsations. On the back cover of this new Naxos release (the first of a complete cycle of Harris’s 13 symphonies) conductor Serge Koussevitzky is quoted as saying that Symphony 3 is “the first great symphony by an American composer”. Many others find it a landmark accomplishment. I guess Quincy Porter was a year too late in 1934.

What strikes the listener who is familiar with Leonard Bernstein’s Sony recording of 3 is how Marin Alsop softens the focus. Her more rounded approach may be a relief to some, and it serves the music well enough, but it comes at the expense of tautness and tension. Maybe the Colorado is a kinder, gentler ensemble than the old New York Phil, but this is still a wet-rag performance. Now and then the rag needs to be snapped.

Symphony 4 is the Folk Song Symphony, consisting of arrangements of songs such as ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’ and ‘Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie’, the latter sung at interminable length by women’s voices, men’s voices, and mixed voices, all with lavender emotions. This “Western Cowboy” movement then turns to ‘The Streets of Laredo’—but oops, we get yet another line of ‘Bury Me Not’ at the conclusion.

The rest of the symphony is in similar maudlin fashion, and as someone who likes traditional western music, I can’t abide it. This breaks my rule of trying not to criticize the music itself, and I can’t find much fault with the chorus or orchestra. My fear, mainly because of 3, is another mediocre cycle from Naxos along the lines of Gerard Schwarz’s limp traversal of William Schuman’s symphonies. We need better.

John von Rhein
Chicago Tribune, September 2006

Like the equally prolific Johann Pachelbel, Roy Harris seems to have gone down in history as a one-work composer. That work is his Third Symphony (1938), which since its Boston premiere under Serge Koussevitzky has been hailed as one of the greatest symphonies ever written by an American. The compact, one-movement piece combines a vivid sense of Harris’ western American background (he was born in a log cabin) with a seriousness, contrapuntal ingenuity and glowing orchestral sound.

But Harris composed 13 symphonies, most unknown and unplayed since their initial performances. Naxos plans to end that neglect by recording the entire cycle. The project gets a good sendoff here under Marin Alsop, who pairs Symphony No. 3 with the more obscure No. 4, subtitled “Folk Song Symphony,” for orchestra and chorus of mixed voices (1939).

Harris wrote the Fourth as a grand celebration of America’s folk-song heritage, dressing such material as “The Girl I Left Behind Me,” “Johnny Comes Marching Home,” cowboy songs and spirituals in splashy arrangements suitable for adult and young people’s choruses and orchestras. To appreciate the seven-movement symphony, you have to listen with innocent ears, as a pageant of World War II musical nationalism, accepting its earnest folksiness on its idealized terms. The Fourth sounds as dated as the Third is forever fresh, but it, too, is vital to our musical history.

Alsop can’t match the spontaneity and rhetorical impact her mentor Leonard Bernstein brought to his two recordings of the Harris Third. But she elicits a robust, spirited account of the “Folksong Symphony” from her former charges, the Colorado Symphony and its chorus. I’m looking forward to the rest of Naxos’ cycle, which will plug the last gap in the discography of major American symphonies.

David Hurwitz, August 2006

I have to confess that I was a bit concerned at the opening of this new performance of Roy Harris’ Third Symphony, where Marin Alsop and the otherwise very good Colorado Symphony fail to match the urgency and passion of Bernstein’s benchmark Sony recording. Once the piece gets moving, however, the music quickly builds to an explosive account of the big fugue, with brilliant contributions from the brass, while the tragic conclusion with its pounding timpani pedal is perhaps the most intense yet captured on disc. Certainly no one has made the final bars sound more convincing or inevitable.

Having a modern recording on hand of the delightful “Folk Song Symphony” certainly adds to the disc’s attractions. There’s only one other that enjoyed general circulation, Golschmann’s on Vanguard, and heaven only knows if it’s still available. In any case, this one is definitely superior sonically, though I marginally prefer the earlier version’s quicker tempos in Western Cowboy and Negro Fantasy (the second and sixth movements, respectively). Alsop still has the edge, though, in terms of both singing and playing, and her quicker sections pack an even bigger punch than the Vanguard release. This is a really attractive work that ought to be better known. If the composer in question had been English/Irish (and some of the tunes actually are: The Girl I Left Behind Me, a.k.a. The Wandering Laborer, also appears in Hamilton Harty’s “Irish” Symphony), we’d no doubt have a plethora of modern recordings from which to choose. Never mind: this one will do very nicely.

John Quinn
MusicWeb International, May 2006

The first thing that caught my eye when this CD arrived was the proud statement on the back of the jewel case that this is the first release in a projected Naxos cycle of all thirteen Harris symphonies. Hooray! This, I’m sure I’m right in saying, will be the first complete cycle and yet again Naxos shows the path in which other record companies have conspicuously failed to tread over the years.

Symphony No. 3 will be familiar to many collectors, I guess, for there have been several recordings of it, not least by Leonard Bernstein. I first got to know the work through his very fine 1961 account with the New York Philharmonic for CBS Sony. He subsequently remade the work for DG, again with the NYPO in a live 1985 performance and there’s also an electric live 1957 reading, yet again with the NYPO, but this is only accessible to collectors with deep pockets as it’s only available as part of the NYPO’s own-label 10-CD set, An American Celebration, an indispensable, if expensive, set for lovers of American orchestral music. Many collectors will also know the superb Koussevitzky reading and this, of course, is of incomparable interest since it was set down in November 1939, less than nine months after Koussevitzky had led the first performance of the work. I mention these distinguished predecessors simply because in my view Marin Alsop need not fear comparison with them.

The Harris Third is one of the very great American symphonies. Indeed, it’s one of the great symphonies of the twentieth century. It’s admirable as much as anything else for its concision. Harris says what he has to say and that’s it; there’s no padding. Not a note is wasted and in many respects it’s on a par with Sibelius’s Seventh, another marvellously taut and economical work. Koussevitzky, a fine interpreter of the Sibelius Seventh, was surely right to hail the Harris work as ‘the first great symphony by an American composer’. It’s cast in one movement but within that there are five clearly defined sections, which the composer described as Tragic, Lyric, Pastoral, Fugue-Dramatic, and Dramatic-Tragic.

The work opens with a long, lyrical paragraph founded on expansive and expressive string lines. This is music that suggests the wide, open spaces better than any other American piece that I know. This may be a short work in terms of time-span but it’s one of vast horizons and big skies. The succeeding Pastoral is beautifully played by the CSO. Marin Alsop’s control is exemplary throughout the performance but perhaps nowhere is this more in evidence than in the Fugue, where she gradually releases the controlled energy that’s in the music to admirable effect, as Harris surely intended. So there’s real and genuine excitement when the brass and percussion get into their stride at around 10:00. The symphony culminates in a passage of great eloquence and cumulative power. It’s a marvellous moment when this section begins—in this account at 15:36—with proudly pounding timpani underpinning the brass. Alsop and her players pull this off majestically, with the CSO horns and brass distinguishing themselves, bringing this splendid symphony to a very powerful close.

Harris followed his Third Symphony very quickly. Work on the Fourth Symphony began in the summer of 1939 and the work was premièred under the baton of Howard Hanson in the following April. I’m not quite sure why David Truslove, the author of the very good-liner notes, asserts that the work was “misnamed” as a symphony by Harris. Mr Truslove believes the work is more properly a fantasia for chorus and orchestra. It’s true that the work doesn’t follow conventional symphonic form but I think Harris knew what he was about. Anyway, what matters is the quality of the music. I think it’s fair to say that this work is not on the same level of intellectual accomplishment as the Third Symphony, but it’s highly enjoyable. And Harris had a very particular aim in mind in employing a chorus and basing the work on American folk-songs. He said that a folk-song symphony served “the practical purpose of bringing about a cultural co-operation and understanding among high school, college and community choruses…that are remote socially from their community”.

The Civil War tune, ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’ furnishes the thematic inspiration for the first movement. It’s a jaunty and outgoing setting, which includes hand clapping—by the chorus?—at one point. It makes a vivacious opening to the symphony. There’s a complete change of mood for ‘Western Cowboy’. Here, the music is much more serious, with orchestration that is often quite spare. In this extended movement Harris ponders the melancholy and hardship of life on the range. The frequent changes of key and surprising modulations impart a feeling of restlessness and uncertainty. Towards the end Harris introduces the song ‘The Streets of Laredo’ and at this point the music sounds more outgoing on the surface. But listen to the unsettled orchestration underneath and mark the far-from-obvious key changes. Even here Harris is reminding his listeners that the reality of cowboy life was often much more mundane and grim than the deeds of derring-do often portrayed by Hollywood.

After this comes the first of the two Interludes, a lively dancing movement in which percussion add colour while the strings carry the argument. The ‘Mountaineer Love Song’ movement, introduced by a grave orchestral passage, sustains a mood of nostalgia tinged with melancholy. The second Interlude features perky woodwinds and, later, an important piano part. This movement is particularly Copland-esque, including a passage, in which the piano is prominent, first cousin to Appalachian Spring. The movement comes to a rather abrupt end, almost suggesting that the music has run out of steam—I’m sure it hadn’t.

‘Negro Fantasy’ begins with a lengthy orchestral introduction, featuring much interesting scoring. The choral writing is particularly plaintive at ‘De trumpet sounds’. Finally, ‘Johnny Comes Marching Home’ wraps things up in fine style. Harris makes much of cheerful march rhythms and this short, celebratory finale rounds off the symphony in exuberant fashion.

The Fourth Symphony is not, I think, Great Music in the sense that its predecessor undoubtedly is. However, it’s richly entertaining, very inventive and sounds to be great fun to perform. It also contains several passages of genuine eloquence. It’s well worth hearing and deserves to be much better known, something this excellent recording should achieve. The Colorado Symphony Chorus sound to be enjoying themselves mightily—as they should be—and they sing with gusto when required but also with no little sensitivity. The orchestra also plays very well and Marin Alsop conducts with her customary conviction. Harris has been well served in Denver.

The recorded sound is very good indeed. As I’ve already indicated the liner notes provide an excellent introduction to the music. The texts are not included, though they can be downloaded from the Naxos website. However, the choir’s diction is good and I doubt the lack of texts will be a hindrance to English-speaking listeners.

The Naxos Harris cycle has, therefore, been launched most auspiciously and I look forward to future instalments. One passing thought. I wonder if Naxos intend to commission new recordings of the Seventh and Ninth symphonies? In a way that would be a surprise since they already have a very fine coupling of these works in their catalogue. On the other hand I, for one, won’t be complaining if Naxos give us a choice.

As for this present disc, collectors need not hesitate. It’s a pleasure to recommend this excellent disc.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group