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HARRIS, R.: Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6, "Gettysburg" (Bournemouth Symphony, Alsop)

Naxos 8.559609, December 2010, July 2010
   Enjoy the Music, July 2010
   Audiophile Audition, June 2010
   Fanfare, May 2010
   MusicWeb International, May 2010
   The Classical Review, April 2010
   MusicWeb International, April 2010
   BBC Music Magazine, March 2010
   Positive Feedback Online, March 2010
   MusicWeb International, March 2010
   Gramophone, March 2010
   Gapplegate Music Review, February 2010
   Cinemusical, February 2010
   The Dallas Morning News, February 2010, February 2010
   David's Review Corner, February 2010, January 2010, January 2010
   The Buffalo News, January 2010
   International Record Review, March 2003

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Steve Schwartz, December 2010

War music. Roy Harris made the symphony central to his output. During the Thirties and the early part of the Forties, many considered him the Great American Symphonist. Today, he’s practically forgotten, even dismissed without much of a hearing. I don’t know any of his symphonies past #11 and haven’t read of any past #14, but he apparently made it to #16, according to David Truslove’s liner notes. That gives you some idea of his present-day reputation. I think it a shame. He has an extremely interesting musical mind, and he managed to write music between the wars untouched by Stravinsky, Hindemith, or Schoenberg. In some ways because of this, it sounds very old-fashioned, closer to the Nineteenth Century, especially the School of César Franck, than the Twentieth in its approach to matters of how music works. The nearest composer I can come up with is Sibelius, and yet the two differ considerably.

World War II brought Harris’s “Americanism” to its height, both in the music’s emphasis and in its inherent quality. The works include Symphonies 4–6, American Creed, Kentucky Spring, the violin concerto, the choral Walt Whitman Suite, Freedom’s Land, and the Mass, the String Quintet, and the violin sonata. Harris’s two heroes were Lincoln and Whitman, and I believe he tried to become a musical equivalent. An artist walks a dangerous path when he climbs Parnassus toward the greats, because he probably will fall short or even fall off. A lot of the critical animus toward Harris in certain American musical quarters during the Fifties flew against what some saw as a ludicrously outsized ego. Not knowing much about Harris personally, I can’t say. Also, the desire to write “American” music after the war increasingly came to be regarded as corny in itself. Composers now wanted to be “international.” However, I admire Harris’s artistic daring and ambition. You don’t get anywhere by not dreaming or very far by dreaming small, and you can’t be universal without at least being local. Harris may not have reached his goal of rubbing shoulders with Lincoln or Whitman, but he remains a damn good Harris.

Harris structured his music by a principle called “autogenesis.” That is, a musical line unfolded over a long span through a small seed in the first measure and a new phrase grows from the point of arrival of the preceding one. It’s as if you watch a symphonic idea getting built note by note. Consequently, if you pay attention to the first measure of a movement, you’ve gone a long way to following the symphonic argument. I don’t know whether Harris invented this. You can certainly find precedent for it in Beethoven (notably, the Fifth Symphony’s first movement) and in Nielsen. However, I don’t recall anyone who worked it so rigorously before Harris. One can hear this fairly clearly in Acceleration. It begins with a rising minor third and a fall-back. The minor third eventually becomes a major third and, down the line, a major triad. The fall-back also undergoes major expansion and variation. The piece didn’t satisfy Harris, who reworked parts of it into his Symphony #6, but it definitely satisfies me. It just picks me up by the scruff of the neck and hustles me along from first measure to last.

Why small labels compete over obscure repertoire like this I have yet to fathom. The Naxos, however, boasts modern digital sound and thus provides at least one excuse for being. Harris dedicated the Symphony #5 to the Soviet Union, at that time desperately throwing everything it had against the Nazis on the Eastern Front. However, he doesn’t write a programmatic symphony, à la Shostakovich’s “Leningrad,” but builds a strong symphonic narrative, closer to Beethoven’s “Eroica.” In that way, the score transcends its specific external circumstances.

Structurally, the symphony is built on themes built from thirds and sixths and runs of a repeating note. Again, the autogenetic procedure holds. The first movement is a call to arms, the second a combination funeral march, lament, and chorale, and the third a fugato with a central fugue. Like Acceleration, it impresses you with its tight logic. The family resemblance of themes from movement to movement (although the symphony never becomes repetitive) puts this work close to cyclical development.

A lot of Harris sounds pretty similar. He doesn’t provide the orchestral surprises of a Copland or a Thomson, although his orchestration is fine on its own terms. I would find it difficult to fill an entire program with just Harris, although on a mixed program, a Harris work would stand out. I confess that I once approached the Sixth Symphony with a bit of dread, for reasons that had nothing to do with music, but with my experience with art works of all types on Great Subjects. Too many artists, composers, and writers just don’t have the wherewithal to deal with Big Ideas in anything like a meaningful way. In short, they fall on their prats. To me, a bad poem on Man’s Place in the Universe means less than a good poem about a little man “who wasn’t there.” In his Sixth, Harris takes on some of our greatest American myths: the Civil War, Gettysburg, Lincoln, and his address, the closest thing we have to a national psalm. Carl Sandburg’s Lincoln biography provided Harris with the initial stimulus.

What Joan of Arc is to France, Lincoln is to Americans—the incarnation of the ideals of the country—and has foxed some very great artists indeed. As much as I love Copland’s Lincoln Portrait, I don’t think it completely successful, particularly when it deals with Lincoln’s own words—Lincoln at his most particular. Whitman’s masterpiece When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d, written at the spur of Lincoln’s death, nevertheless doesn’t deal directly with Lincoln. Sandburg creates a Lincoln who’s really a secular Christ. Gore Vidal’s Lincoln, certainly a marvel of a book, in its attempt to render Lincoln understandable and contemporary, makes him less than he is. I’m sure even Shakespeare didn’t seem as fine to his contemporaries as he does to us. After all, they saw him blow his nose.

The four movements of Harris’s symphony—“Awakening,” “Conflict,” “Dedication,” “Affirmation”—correspond to the major sections of the Gettysburg Address, and all proceed by autogenesis. The nation awakens to its ideal, “four score and seven years ago,” “that all men are created equal.” It engages in “a great civil war,” testing that proposition. At Gettysburg, we meet to “dedicate a portion of that field” to the men who died there. We end with the affirmation of the living, to honor the dead, to “take increased devotion” to “a new birth of freedom” and to an imperishable “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” I don’t know about you, but simply reading those words makes me feel ashamed of myself.

The first movement is essentially a long crescendo from darkness (beginning with a minor third) and a brightening. In the second movement, after an anguished slow march, trumpets, horns, and trombones represent opposing armies and the movement of battles. This movement to me is the one most rooted in the Forties—perhaps Harris’s take on Shostakovich, although Harris keeps a tight grip on his emerging patterns. He doesn’t (as Shostakovich does in the “Leningrad,” for example) abandon himself to an emotional moment. Harris raises plenty of emotion; he just doesn’t lose control. No matter how heated he gets, you always sense there’s a lid on the pot.

From a plainchant-like theme in the double basses, the third movement builds up from the lower strings with a polyphonic mastery closer to the Renaissance than to our own time. Eventually, woodwinds and brass join in with their own lines, thus adding linear complexity to an already rich texture. It moves with a calm, sure breath and certainly counts as one of my favorite Harris slow movements. The finale comes from Harris’s American Creed of 1940—the movement titled “Free to Build”—a giant triple fugue that nevertheless grows “autogenetically.” Nevertheless, this is a tighter, niftier rewrite rather than a wholesale borrowing.

In the Harris Sixth, Alsop competes with Keith Clark on Albany TROY0064 and comes out the winner. Clark’s Sixth emphasizes the Modern elements of the Symphony, Alsop the lyric. She is especially good with Harris’s slow tempi, which in other hands tend to bog down. She not only keeps things moving, she gets at the poetry. Clark’s “Conflict” movement bangs and crashes, but Alsop’s has real drama—the clash of armies, the give and take of battle. Naxos also has a better sound, and the Bournemouth Symphony is simply a better orchestra than the Pacific Symphony. All in all, one of the best CDs in Naxos’s American series.

Jim Leonard, July 2010

There are those who still profess to admire the symphonies of Roy Harris, but admiration for the American composer’s deeply heartfelt if equally deeply reactionary works was much more widespread during the late 1930s and 1940s, when his big tunes, warm harmonies, driving rhythms, and colorful scoring made him one of America’s more popular classical composers. But styles change, and by the 1950s, big tunes were out and hardcore serialism was in, and the result was a marked falloff in Harris’ popularity and productivity. Nevertheless, the composer’s admirers will likely welcome this Naxos disc with Marin Alsop and the Bournemouth Symphony featuring his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, each of which has its merits. The Fifth from 1942, is dedicated to “the heroic and freedom-loving people of our great ally, the Union of Soviet Republics,” thus making it a sort of musical reply to Shostakovich’s heroic Seventh from the same year. The Sixth from two years later tries to capture the emotions the subtitle “Gettysburg” evokes…

Joe Milicia
Enjoy the Music, July 2010

Roy Harris’ Third Symphony of 1938 (in one movement) remains one of the masterpieces of American music, and has had its champions over the years, from Serge Koussevitzky (who premiered and recorded it) to Leonard Bernstein (who recorded it twice) and Leonard Slatkin (once). But Harris wrote thirteen symphonies (plus one for voices only and the “West Point Symphony” for concert band), and only on rare occasions have any of them been performed, much less recorded, by major orchestras. Thus it is gratifying that Marin Alsop—whose Samuel Barber series for Naxos has been overall superb—is recording Harris. Her renditions of Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4 (the latter a choral “Folk Song Symphony”) with the Colorado Symphony have already appeared; now Naxos has released Nos. 5 and 6, plus a short bonus piece, with the Bournemouth Symphony in superb sound.

All the works on the present CD date from the War Years, 1941 to 1944, and certainly have a predominantly somber quality, though with moments of exultation all the same. To be sure, the same could be said for Harris’ symphonies of the 1930s. His musical style in the ‘40s, instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with the Third Symphony, features the “American” sound one also associates with Aaron Copland (say, the latter’s own Third Symphony), but the rich modal harmonies and the treatment of the brass in particular, plus a debt both to Sibelius (evolution of symphonic themes though fragmentary buildup) and Renaissance church composers (polyphony, antiphonal choirs), are distinctive of Harris. The CD offers the works in reverse order of composition, but I’ll comment on them from earliest to latest.

The worthwhile “filler” on the CD is Acceleration, a 7-minute work that starts out as a funeral march but—you guessed it—accelerates, though not to any extreme degree, as in, say, Honegger’s Pacific 231. It just becomes more jubilant and vigorous, with passages in 3/4 rhythm, and actually slows down at the end. David Truslove’s booklet note mentions that Harris revised the work in 1942 but presumably the 1941 original is being performed, since that’s the date attached to the title. He also mentions that the musical material was “recycled” in the Sixth Symphony, but I can’t help but ask if this is a mistake, since the second movement of the Fifth Symphony opens with the same funeral-march theme. (Perhaps there is more subtle use of the material in the Sixth.) Overall, I wouldn’t want to argue that Acceleration is a major discovery, but it’s a pleasant addition to the Harris catalogue.

The Fifth Symphony, premiered in early 1943 by Koussevitzky and his Boston Symphony, was dedicated to the U.S.’s “great ally, the Union of Soviet Republics,” and broadcast to the Soviet Union as well as to American troops around the world. These circumstances indicate that the Fifth should or at least could be classified as a “War” symphony (especially when one recalls that Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” Symphony was broadcast from the Soviet Union to the West a year earlier), but the opening movement is rather exuberant. There is a skipping 6/8 rhythm that opens the symphony (think the famous rhythm of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony’s first movement). Truslove calls it a “call-to-arms type gesture,” but surely the treatment of it in the following bars is too genial for that. There are some rousing passages that follow, with a disconcerting quotation (conscious or not?) of the trumpet fanfare that opens American horse races. A slowdown of the dotted-eighth rhythm ends the movement.

As I’ve mentioned, the second movement does begin with a funeral march. The heavy rhythmic tread very gradually fades, but the mood remains somber—downcast yet yearning. There is an impassioned section with melodic material given to the strings; the pace accelerates to a climax which gradually subsides, with choirs of winds, especially brass, adding their own accents to the strings’ restlessness. A brass chorale quiets things down, and the movement ends with antiphonal responses between (mainly) brass and strings. The finale is fugal, beginning starkly with a statement of material to be used but soon becoming light-textured and playful, with a return of the dotted rhythm of the first movement. A piano, though never soloistic, lends its color to most of the movement, and snare drum and other percussion fortify the conclusion. Overall, the Fifth Symphony strikes me as more “absolute” music than as a piece with a program about struggle and hope, for example.

In 1982 I saw Rafael Kubelik conduct this work with the Chicago Symphony—the featured work in the second half of a concert that opened with Barber and Norman Dello Joio. I remember it being an exciting performance, especially the French-horn opening with the dotted rhythm, but I haven’t been able to compare my recollections with the taping on the limited-edition “From the Archives” set issued by the CSO years ago. Marin Alsop certainly gets splendid playing from Bournemouth (she is “Emeritus” Conductor of that orchestra), with especially warm, rich sounds from the brass. I did wonder, however, if another orchestra or conductor could have brought greater tension and power in the buildup to the climax of the symphony’s final pages.

Once again premiered by Boston under Koussevitzky, in 1944, the Sixth Symphony too seems to me to work well enough as “abstract” music, though it most definitely has a program. Dedicated to “the Armed Forces of Our Nation,” it alludes to the Gettysburg Address in its four movement titles: Awakening, Conflict, Dedication, and Affirmation. The opening movement is “dawn” music: delicate fragments of themes, gentle chords (with effective use of the vibraphone), then woodwind figures that sound like birdcalls, and finally the splendor of the whole orchestra. The second movement is “battle” music, though with gradual shifting from one menacing moment to the next, rather than with sudden outbursts or the frenetic hysteria in some comparable “scenes” in Shostakovich. One passage has a galumphing rhythm that very much recalls a rhythm in the first movement of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ devastating Fourth Symphony. “Conflict” abruptly halts rather than comes to a conventional conclusion.

“Dedication,” the longest movement, is an “after-the-battle” slow movement, though not so much bleak or despairing as tenderly sad and wistful. The finale, like that of the Fifth Symphony, is fugal though mostly slow-paced, with fragments of themes complexly passed back and forth until the “Affirmation” of the final pages. Overall, I found that Alsop and Bournemouth leave nothing to be desired in terms of pacing, orchestral color and passionate commitment.

Naxos’ cover art, a rather wan picture of Lincoln posing on the Gettysburg platform, doesn’t do justice to the vigor and modernism of the music. But their engineers have done full justice to the Bournemouth Symphony, with resplendent, realistic sound and beautiful balance among the string and wind choirs, so essential to any Harris symphony performance.

Robert Moon
Audiophile Audition, June 2010

Johanna Harris, the wife of the American composer Roy Harris (1898–1979) once said that the song, “Don’t Fence Me In” “describes the prime basic law that governs my husband’s life.” Born in a log cabin in Oklahoma, Harris drew from cowboy songs, American hymn tunes and Civil War music, to write compositions that express the wide open spaces that are so typical of rural America. His music is tonal, characterized by long flowing contrapuntal melodies that are invigorated by dissonances, polytonality and irregular rhythms. He studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, taught at the Juilliard School, UCLA, and other universities. He directed the music section of the Overseas Division of the Office of War Information in 1945. Much of his output was forgotten in the American avant-garde domination of classical music in the 1960s and 70s, but it has re-emerged in the last few years, as tonality has re-established it’s rightful place as a force in the eclectic music of the 21st century.

The late Russian-born American composer and critic Nichoas Slonimsky wrote of Harris, “He has a natural gift for the melodic line, and his melodies are in the uncanny way reflective of the American scene without being literal quotations.” The two symphonies on this disc represent a musical picture of America in the years of World War II. Symphony No. 6 “Gettysburg” was written in 1943–4 and was dedicated to the “The Armed Forces of Our Nation.” The four movements use direct quotations from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address of 1863. Awakening’s long crescendo is magically inspired, using a vibraphone that adds brightness to the massed strings. Conflict’s truculent march rhythms descend into the chaos of battle, ending suddenly. Dedication is the emotional center of the work, as it movingly mourns the casualties of war. Affirmation patriotically concludes this compelling symphony. Acceleration (1941) is a one-movement, seven-minute work that is energetically American in the ‘Harrisonian’ mode.

Symphony No 5 exhibits “…qualities of heroic strength-determination-will to struggle-faith in our destiny,” the composer wrote. It opens with a declaratory first movement using horns and brass that characterize the “fierce, driving power-optimistic, young, rough and ready.” In the second movement, a somber dirge transforms into an uplifting stringed chorale. The composer’s colorful use of strings and brass make this the most dramatically potent movement on this disc. Tempo changes in the triple fugue of the final movement makes it a structurally complex and bold-spirited statement of the American character. The Fifth Symphony is a work of monumental directness and Marin Alsop and the Bournemouth Symphony fully express the wide range of moods from patriotic vigor to nostalgic tenderness.

The recording is clear, but lacks some of the vivid resonance that characterizes the music. This disc is a significant addition to the Naxos’ Harris discography and an essential disc for anyone interested in symphonic Americana.

Lynn René Bayley
Fanfare, May 2010

Marin Alsop, another Naxos conductor I’ve always admired, simply outdoes herself here. Like so many modern conductors, she emphasizes well-balanced sections, a steady tempo, and fine dynamic contrasts, but unlike so many others she throws herself into the music. There is scarcely a moment in these works when she seems at an emotional disconnect from Harris’s message, and in the second movement of the Sixth Symphony, I swear to you, she makes this conventional CD sound like surround-sound SACD. The strings, brasses, and winds practically leap out at you from all directions. You simply won’t believe it until you hear it…

William Kreindler
MusicWeb International, May 2010

At a Roy Harris concert in New York that I attended in the mid-seventies, Harris’s former pupil William Schuman made a short speech in which he stated that the time had come for a modern integral set of the Harris symphonies. As of this moment, this has still not taken place, although Naxos seems to be working towards it and Albany Records has recorded several symphonies not yet done by Naxos. But there is still a ways to go and that makes this disc by Marin Alsop all the more welcome.

The Symphony No. 5 was begun in 1940, but not completed until 1942, by which time the United States was at war. Harris showed great intelligence in not trying to repeat the one-movement form of the very successful Third Symphony and instead produced a three-movement work based on his favorite Prelude-Choral-Fugue format. While it cannot be described as a “war symphony” elements of those times are felt in the piece. The first movement is based on a single theme and the first half of the movement is full of sharp brass tones, woodwind roulades and an occasional bugle call. This is bound together by some fascinating counterpoint. Part B is a faster development of the previous material, leading to a pastoral section similar to parts of the Third Symphony.

If the first movement can be seen as the base of one of Harris’s famous “gothic arches”, then the second movement is naturally the arch itself. This movement is a very long chorale based on one of Harris’s noblest melodies and showing his complete developmental command. Its mixture of mystical and American Western elements is very moving. As it continues its development the various elements combine to form a climax of great inevitability. The last movement is more ebullient—with fugal variations rather than an actual fugue. These develop into a slow middle section which contains some of the most eloquent music in the symphony. Finally, we have more variants, one almost whimsical, before the fugue works itself out to the finale.

Acceleration is one of many shorter orchestral works that Harris wrote throughout his career and one of many that he cannibalized to provide material for larger, more important works, in this case the Sixth Symphony. As a piece in itself it is quite exciting and can stand alone. The Sixth Symphony was commissioned for the radio on the subject of Abraham Lincoln, the composer’s idol. Written in 1943 and 1944 it is more war-related than the Fifth Symphony, its four movements using ideas from the Gettysburg Address to present both a statement of American values and an evocation of the spirit of democratic principles necessary to obtain victory. It presents the interesting spectacle of a last movement that in some ways is weaker than its three predecessors, yet which perfectly accomplishes the aforementioned tasks set himself by the composer.

Each of these symphonies has been recorded once before: the Fifth on an old Louisville First Edition LP in the 1950s with very murky sound and the Sixth by Keith Clark on a digital LP re-released on Albany TROY 064. Needless to say, the sound on the Alsop disc is fresh and clear compared to these old discs and is quite good by today’s standards too. The brass sound as produced by the Bournemouth Symphony is quite sharp and Harris’s gamelan is quite in evidence. One could only wish for a little more richness of sound from the rest of the orchestra. Just as she was able to get into the sound-world of Samuel Barber, Alsop shows that she definitely understands the more recondite one of Harris, especially in the matter of phrasing. She really knows how to make his notes live and breathe.

Andrew Achenbach
The Classical Review, April 2010

Marin Alsop’s previous Naxos coupling of Roy Harris’s Third and Fourth Symphonies with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra was such a perplexing let-down (the towering, single-movement Third receiving a real dud of a performance, impossibly low-key and flabby) that I approached this successor with some degree of trepidation. Both works were composed in the dark days of the Second World War and first played by the Boston SO under Serge Koussevitzky (stalwart champions of the composer ever since their triumphant January 1934 premiere of the First Symphony).

The Sixth (1944), subtitled Gettysburg, bears a dedication to “the Armed Forces of Our Nation”, each of its four movements being prefaced by words from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address of 1863. Alsop presides over an eminently attentive account, but in the gunpowder and gore of the second movement (‘Conflict’) she tends to stand back from the action, and there’s some lack of intensity in the long-limbed string lines of the deeply felt slow movement (‘Dedication’). The finale (‘Affirmation’) also lacks something in determination and sheer cumulative clout. It’s a tidy, respectful display, but there’s no getting away from the fact that Keith Clark’s pioneering version from 1981 with the Pacific SO (last available many moons ago on Varèse Sarabande) packs the greater emotional punch.

It’s a similar tale in the three-movement Fifth (1942), another big-hearted, craggy edifice inscribed to “the heroic and freedom-loving people of our great ally, the Union of Soviet Republics”. Again, Alsop and the BSO do a thoroughly professional job, but it’s not hard to imagine a performance of greater drama, conviction and involvement (you’d never guess, for instance, that the opening of the finale is marked appassionato). The slow movement fares best, a threnody of considerable organic power and nobility of utterance, though even here there’s the nagging suspicion that the Bournemouth orchestra is still in the process of getting to grips with an unfamiliar idiom.

Admittedly, tension levels do rise for the final item, Acceleration—written in July 1941 for the National SO of Washington DC and material from which was subsequently plundered for the Sixth Symphony—but by then one can’t help feeling it all comes a little late in the day. A useful, instructive release, then, but the actual interpretations don’t sound to me like they’ve had sufficient time to bed down. Frustrating.

Brian Wilson
MusicWeb International, April 2010

The Fifth is certainly well worth hearing and the Sixth not far behind; with good performances and recording, this is clearly the next stop for those who have been taken with the Third.

Anthony Burton
BBC Music Magazine, March 2010

These are strong accounts, and admirers of the Third who want to explore Harris further won’t be disappointed.

Bob Neill
Positive Feedback Online, March 2010

Symphony No. 5 (1942) is a darker, heavier work—we are in the middle of World War II here—but the substance, particularly of the first two movements, is essentially melodrama, not tragedy. The third and final movement is a pleasant surprise, moving beyond melodrama to something more interesting that gets closer to the feel of Symphony No. 3, Harris’s most effective voice. The orchestration of this movement, which includes visits by piano and both snare and bass drums, is also more complex than most which precedes it.

Symphony No. 6 “Gettysburg,” (1944) tells us it is now definitely time to write about war unless you are an unworldly aesthete, which none of our American romantic composers were. The Battle of Gettysburg is Harris’s vehicle here for composing affirmative music for ‘our side’ in World War II. It is martial and reflective in turn, maintaining a sober and thoughtful mood, especially its extended third movement (of four) called “Dedication.” No militarism but no dark criticism of warlike man either. It is not clear what we are being urged to dedicate ourselves to here until the fourth and final movement, “Affirmation,” where sunnier strings in a more confident sounding key appear to propose no more war. ‘Good luck with that,’ we say, in brilliant hindsight, but it is the right thing to say if your overall disposition is, well affirmative.

Nick Barnard
MusicWeb International, March 2010

The Naxos series of Roy Harris Symphonies has proved to be one of their more stuttering projects, certainly in terms of the discs’ appearance in the catalogue and the personnel involved. The original release dated from the time Naxos were recording in the Ukraine and featured the 7th and 9th Symphonies in 2002. The next disc appeared in 2006 from the Colorado Symphony Orchestra in the safe hands of Marin Alsop and contained his two most famous Symphonies—the 3rd and 4th. So, after another four year pause arrives volume three—also with Alsop but this time featuring her Bournemouth orchestra. Given that he wrote thirteen numbered symphonies which Naxos has promised to record, it is to be hoped that the current rate of two per four years will increase!

Intellectually even more than musically Harris is strikingly individual. He grew up far away from the hub of American music on the East Coast and was largely self-taught until, on the advice of Aaron Copland, he became one of so many American composers to make the pilgrimage to Paris to attend masterclasses from Nadia Boulanger. However, unlike many of his fellow students he rejected much of the neo-classical aesthetic she propounded and, pardon the pun given his farming heritage, ploughed his own furrow. On returning to the States his Symphony 1933 (in effect his first) became the first indigenous American symphony to be commercially recorded. His breakthrough work was his Symphony No 3 of 1938 and it remains his best known work by some distance. Certainly it is the work by which most collectors will know him. Apart from the 4th Symphony the other symphonies—and indeed any of his work—have been much more sporadically recorded. Currently, there is another slowly evolving Symphony cycle on Albany but how complete that intends to be I do not know.

Harris is one of those artists I find very hard to place in the pantheon of composers. Sometimes I find his music to be powerfully uplifting and emotionally involving and at other times opaque and dull. My instinct, and this really is born out of listening to the music and reading the brief biographical details, is that all too often he tries to impose rather grand extra-musical ideas on his work that he does not have the technique to pull off. To my mind the Third Symphony ‘works’ so well because it is pure music and concentrated into a compressed single movement form. Also, it is very clear that Harris was a man of considerable political ideals. He headed up several cultural delegations to the Soviet Union and was an admirer (as so many were at that time) of the perceived pure ideal of a socialist state. My guess is that he sought to copy the concept of the proletariat artist producing music for the masses. This also links in with another neat concept. Harris shared his birthday with Abraham Lincoln and given that Lincoln features specifically in two of Harris’s Symphonies (6 and 10) is it too much of a intuitive leap to suppose that he took the president’s words from the Gettysburg address which enshrines his socialist view that “all men are created equal” to write “[music] of the people, for the people, by the people”? He also wrote a work for mezzo-soprano and piano trio Abraham Lincoln walks at midnight (also recorded by Naxos).

So to the music presented here. Given the presence of a picture of President Lincoln on the disc’s cover and the placing of the 6th Symphony “Gettysburg” first it is clear that this is the key work on the disc. This is not a war symphony. Although the battle of Gettysburg in 1863 was a turning point in the American Civil War, Harris’ focus is on the famous address President Lincoln made when visiting the battlefield some four months later. In one of the briefest yet most famous speeches ever made in America, Lincoln coined the phrase that still resonates in democratic countries to this day; “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government: of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth”. Written in 1944 Harris heads each of the four movements of his symphony with a title; in order Awakening, Conflict, Dedication, and Affirmation. Curiously not one of those words appears in the speech itself. So what we have is a distillation of the varying moods of Lincoln’s speech overlaid onto a standard four movement symphonic form. It’s a big idea, and one that Harris brings off to powerful effect. To my mind there is a potential danger in giving such bald titles to a movement. The composer is committing himself to a kind of cinematic representation, so ‘Awakening’ (you would suppose) roughly moves from darkness to light—it does; ‘Conflict’ is, well, aggressive and dramatic—it is—and so on. In performance a lot will depend therefore on the players being able to engage in a somewhat technicolour way with the intended emotional goal. Marin Alsop and her excellent Bournemouth orchestra give it a good shot but I am not wholly convinced. This symphony has also been released as part of the above-mentioned Albany cycle played by the Pacific Symphony Orchestra under Keith Clark (originally released but differently coupled on Varèse Sarabande—VCD 47245 and now on Albany TROY064) and I find that performance to be significantly more successful than Alsop. Timings are remarkably similar except in the last movement where Clark shaves a whole minute off Alsop’s 7:03. The differences are in two key areas; the engineering and the spirit of the performance. Engineer/producer Tim Handley—who has been responsible for many excellent recordings for Naxos—seems to have produced an acoustic which feels more cavernous than others I have heard from the same venue. This has two main effects—the lower frequencies are very noticeable and upper detail is less distinct. At the very opening of the symphony this has a striking effect on the emotional landscape of the work. The Bournemouth bass drum and timps give a funereal feel against which the shaft of light from the piano, vibraphone and harp struggle to impact. The Clark recording imbues the opening with a hushed expectation with the high chords brightly etched. The solo strings in Bournemouth are quite forward in the mix and rather literal in their approach. The Pacific Symphony Orchestra players, much further back in the orchestral group are given a wraith-like quality that works surprisingly well. Likewise as the movement progresses Harris does not change the basic pulse; instead he increases the number of notes per pulse played. The effect is of an acceleration without accelerating! The Albany/Varèse recording allows the inner detail to register with greater clarity than the Naxos disc. The Pacific Symphony Orchestra seems more convinced by the work and the movement builds to a (surely intended) exultant climax. The Bournemouth playing, while technically beyond reproach, never takes wing. Harris is a motivic rather than melodic composer; there are not many opportunities for great arching melodies to soar over an orchestra. Instead the focus has to be on the cumulative power of the expanding and developing motifs and to my ears this is achieved more fully by Clark than Alsop. As a movement Conflict is more problematic and probably the least satisfying section of the work to my ears. It does not seem to be representing either an inner or outer conflict. This is exactly the kind of movement that needs one of Shostakovich’s viscerally exciting nightmare scherzos. Harris opts for piercing brass over a string drone which builds to the various orchestral groups throwing fanfare-like figures at each other. In Bournemouth the bass drum again rather dominates. Curiously, there are moments very similar to Malcolm Arnold when the horns obsessively repeat an upward whooping figure. Again, the forward momentum is built by the same basic pulse being divided into ever smaller parts. Clark and his engineers are much more successful at illuminating detail. Most noteworthy is the extraordinarily abrupt end to the movement. Although the final two movements are separate they fulfil a single emotional span. Building from the rubble at the end of Conflict, Dedication builds slowly and sparely. A solo violin reappears much as in the first movement but the effect here of its falling phrase is that of a benediction. This movement is more lightly scored and indeed for much of the time the strings alone carry the burden of the musical argument. In its simple unwinding groping upwards this movement pre-echoes the minimalist writing of Arvo Pärt certainly during the first 3—4 minutes. The wind and brass appear after some five and a half minutes and continue to support the music as it becomes increasingly hymn-like and impassioned. The finale Affirmation continues in much the same vein although it uses one of the older compositional devices Harris prefers—fugue. This is fugal writing very much on his own terms but it does gives him the opportunity to demonstrate one of his other preferred techniques—that where the germinal seed-like motifs grow and expand as the work progresses. The entwining brass lines (again better defined by Clark than Alsop) take on a positive heroic tone interrupted by a curious bass drum and cymbals “oom-pah” figure. There is as much conflicting writing here as there was in the symphony’s second movement but this is the chaos of an excited crowd with material overlapping and interrupting in joyful abandon. It makes for a powerful ending to an impressive piece.

The other main work here is the Symphony No.5 which was composed when the outcome of World War II was much more in the balance in the Autumn of 1942. It has no title as such but instead bears the rather unwieldy dedication to; “the heroic and freedom-loving people of our great ally, the Union of Soviet Republics”. This resulted in the February 1943 premiere being simultaneously broadcast to the USSR. Never afraid to take on big ideas, this time I feel Harris is less successful than in the Gettysburg Symphony. The work has been recorded before—by the Louisville orchestra under Jorge Mester (see First Edition review but before that on Albany AR012) but this is my first encounter with the work. Each of the three movements is given a plain number (all movements are created equal perhaps?) Again motivic development is the central compositional plank on which the works rests. In the case of the symphony’s first movement it is based on a rhythmic cell the same as the three note figure that dominates the opening movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No.7. This Harris alternates with a militaristic marching motif. Whereas elsewhere this technique builds to a satisfying climax here there is a sense that after a suitable amount of ‘working out’ the movement finishes in an almost arbitrary way. Movement II is another funeral cortege, this time replete with tolling bells and muffled drums. Perhaps I’m just thinking about the dedication but it feels a little hollowly rhetorical and square-jawed. It strikes me as the least original of the symphonic movements on this disc and the one that could most easily be fitted to a film. Movement III again comprises fragmentary motifs thrown against and chasing each other. Again I feel the resonant character of the recording works against multi-lined and layered character of the work. The rhythm of the first movement reappears and with the brass leads to another bold but abrupt conclusion.

In the past I have found that Harris’s work has grown on me considerably with repeated listenings. I’m loath to be too hard on the Symphony No.5 for the simple reason I do not know the work well yet. As ever, how marvellous that we can take advantage of such assured and authoritative performances at such a low price. One rather glaring error in David Truslove’s liner note that is repeated on the CD’s cover however. He notes that the disc’s filler -Acceleration—from 1941 is reworked as the slow movement of the Symphony No 6. It’s not; it is the Symphony No.5. Truslove also omits to mention William Schuman in his pantheon of American Symphonic composers which is surprising since Schuman and Harris are most often linked. I would have to say I find Schuman the greater, more consistent composer, and certainly the one whose symphonies show a more cogent and logical progression both individually and collectively. But that being said I will look forward to further releases in this cycle.

Lawrence A Johnson
Gramophone, March 2010

Roy Harris’s little-performed wartime symphonies are given a chance to shine

Few works have dropped more precipitously out of favour than Roy Harris’s Symphony No 3. Premiered by Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony in 1939, the Third quickly became a repertory mainstay and was regarded, with the Third of Aaron Copland, as the great American symphony, played and recorded widely. In recent decades, Harris’s Third has lost its standing, joining the ranks of other unjustly neglected works by Piston, Hanson and Diamond on the fringes of repertory.

Harris’s Third remains a masterpiece but the composer wrote 12 other numbered symphonies and at least five additional works he called by the same title. Some have been individually recorded but just as many remain in the shadows. Kudos to the indefatigable Naxos label for its commitment to recording new performances of all the Harris symphonies from various sources.

Symphony No 6, Gettysburg, comes first on the disc, understandably, since it is the stronger of the two works. Written at the peak of the Second World War—and also premiered by Koussevitzky—the symphony is an evocation of the crucial Civil War battle but was also written to serve as a patriotic tribute to the US armed forces. The opening movement, “Awakening”, has a slow, solemn horn theme that segues into solo violin passages, and fragments that coalesce and provide thematic material. The music becomes more assertive and impassioned, not without a bit of triumphalism—once recalls Samuel Barber’s dictum that no composer should write in wartime—which Alsop skilfully underplays. The second movement, “Conflict”, presents trumpets over dirge-like throbbing chords, with jagged horn fragments and angular driving music that comes to an abrupt halt. The slow movement, “Dedication”, is the heart of the work, where against insistent sustained As in divided cellos, double basses intone a long-breathed melody that moves to a solo violin. The finale, “Affirmation”, bestows a sense of solace and nobility with a very American period feel to the wind phrases, fortified with confidence by forceful brass and timpani. Alsop shows great sympathy for Harris’s tricky ebb and flow and this performance is unlikely to be bettered, yet even with the valedictory expression, the music feels rather lightweight and lacking in memorability.

The Fifth Symphony (1942) was inspired by the wartime US alliance with the Soviets. Harris’s patriotic sentiments are undoubtedly genuine, even if the dedication to “the heroic and freedom-loving people of our great ally, the Union of Soviet Republics”, is cringe-inducing in light of subsequent events. As in his Third Symphony, all of the thematic material stems from the stern opening theme, with a repeated-note horn motif derived from Beethoven’s Seventh. Even at just a concise six minutes, the first movement seems like thin stuff padded out with an overblown brass section. The central movement is a gaunt, dirge-like tragic march, while the finale attempts some sort of calming elevated expression amid cacophonous percussion and militaristic bombast that makes Shostakovich seem like Debussy. The makeweight, Acceleration, is a seven-minute orchestral work that served as a draft for material that later made its way into Harris’s Sixth Symphony. There’s a certain lumbering gravitas here but, as the composer recognised, the music is not strong enough to stand on its own.

The Sixth has its moments but neither symphony is a masterpiece, and wit the works issued to date it has yet to be proven that Harris wasn’t a one-hit wonder. Still, the quality of Alsop’s conducting and the playing of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra is a vast improvement on the pioneering Louisville recording of the Fifth (Albany) and it’s heartening that Naxos is making such a firm commitment to give us Roy Harris’s entire symphonic oeuvre. Standing by for the next instalment.

Gapplegate Music Review, February 2010

Naxos Records is in the process of releasing the complete cycle of symphonies by American composer Roy Harris. That can only be a good thing, especially if the present volume is any indication.

Harris’s (1898–1979) reputation as an important composer in the modern post-Ivesian mode seems to have waned sometime in the late ’50s, only to revive again in the past decade or so. Perhaps it was easy to take him for granted during a period where the very latest advancement of new music got fleeting, flavor-of-the-month attention at the expense of composers who weren’t radically breaking with tradition but nonetheless created a body of works that had lasting value.

I do not wish to imply that there isn’t much of lasting value in the more avant composers of that era, but that’s another matter. Harris was certainly one of those in the less sensational, less “advanced” category, along with Piston, William Schumann and a handful of others. His World War II Era symphonies were more overtly nationalist, at least in sentiment, than some of the earlier and later works. In any event they remain excellent examples of the Harris style, long unwinding melodies changing hands among instrumental groups, crisp, clear orchestrations, a bracing, restrained lyricism. Listen to the sonorous, majestic, martial strains remembered in solitude as worked out in the Second Movement of his Fifth Symphony if you need convincing.

Marin Alsop and the Bournemouth Symphony give carefully but passionately rendered performances of these works. The added bonus of the miniature work “Acceleration,” later reworked into the Sixth Symphony, gives a nice finishing touch to the presentation.

Highly recommended listening…

Cinemusical, February 2010

I am kicking off a more frequent number of classical music reviews thanks to Naxos whose discs tend to show up here infrequently as “best of the month.” Now you will be able to get a few more detailed reviews of more recent classical releases from the label. (Other labels interested in submitting music for review are invited to drop me an email.) In this case, we can embrace an opportunity to raise awareness of American music--a personal crusade of mine for years.

Roy Harris is one of our great American symphonists. That said his music is sadly relatively unknown unless you happen to catch a musical survey course that focuses on American music history. Even then he tends to be overshadowed by Copland and a fairly dismissive snobbishness in academia to the continuation of the Romantic tradition. His name tended to rest on two works. Leonard Bernstein championed the truly superb Third Symphony which has seen a good number or recordings over the years (at least one performance tends to stay in the catalogue. The First Symphony was introduced in Boston under Koussevitzky and that performance was captured on tape (though the beginning was frustratingly cut off) and has appeared on historic reissues. Fortunately, Naxos has stepped in to correct a musical wrong by providing what looks to be a slow general overview of his music in their American Classics series.

Naxos has released four of Harris’ symphonies on two discs. It was Marin Alsop’s, which included the aforementioned Third Symphony that began to give music lovers hope that more was to come. It has been a bit of a wait, but we now have the present release with recordings of two important symphonies from the early 1940s. The earlier release was with the Colorado Symphony. For this one, Marin Alsop returns to Bournemouth where she is conductor emeritus. Alsop was a protégé of Bernstein, so no doubt gained a love for these pieces from someone who definitely understood their musical value. Her sensitive performances are a welcome addition to the catalogue.

The disc opens with one of Harris’ most powerful programmatic symphonies, subtitled “Gettysburg.” This sixth symphonic exercise has a truly cinematic scope that rises to the surface in its fascinating depiction of battle in its second movement titled “Conflict.” Musical tone painting is a hallmark of this work which begins quietly in “Awakening.” This opening movement features a perfect encapsulation of Harris’ symphonic style with smaller motivic ideas presented out of a mass of swirling sound that grows in intensity. There is an almost Sibelian quality to the way these motives swirl together for a long thematic line that closes off the movement (similar to Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony). The tension of war shifts into an elegiac third movement, “Dedication.” An arch-like formal structure gives the feel of a spun out melodic idea as the movement opens which gives way to a gorgeously scored central section with woodwinds and muted brass. It is an interesting exercise in motivic and harmonic movement over a pedal point as well. The concluding “Affirmation” brings brass to the forefront again in a massive triple fugue based on an earlier work of his (American Creed). Reminiscent of the climactic moments of the Third, the soaring brass bring the work to a rousing conclusion. The Sixth Symphony is one of American music’s treasures. It is a different sort of Americana than the one Copland was developing practically at the same time. It is a work that illustrates the hybrid nature of mid-century American composers with a foot in tradition and in contemporary harmonic language that perhaps finds it parent in symphonists like Bruckner. It is an important work with allegorical connotations to those who perhaps experienced it in such a way as World War II drove to a hopeful conclusion.

The Fifth Symphony hails from 1942. This is the absolute music of symphonic writing with nothing to guide us except our own program. But its numerical position suggests the potential for seriousness and Harris intended to reference the Russian’s triumphal defeat of the Nazis. The opening movement features a number of calls-to-arms and a rhythmic figure suggesting Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. It is a rich textural opening that comes with great force, though seems to have a bit of difficulty wrapping up. The central movement is cast in three sections beginning with a funeral march, moving into a central string section in search of a theme, and concluding with an almost chorale-like finish between brass and strings. It is here where one recalls Shostakovich’s symphonic struggle with World War II and a need to represent in music the terrors, hope, and ultimate overthrow of invasion. Fate comes knocking in a four-note motif that appears in the opening bars of the final movement. Then we are off and running as Harris moves through a series of fascinatingly orchestrated variations on this little motive culminating in a heroic conclusion reminiscent of Beethoven.

In addition to the two symphonies, the disc is rounded off with a recording of Acceleration from 1941. The interest in this miniature is its condensed presentation of Harris’ style. It also would be recycled for the Sixth Symphony. That might be the reason why American Creed was not added to this disc, though it would have been a worthy inclusion. The 14-minute piece would have really filled out this disc. No doubt it will appear soon if Alsop continues the survey of symphonic pieces.

The performance of the Sixth Symphony is simply amazing. The Fifth is likewise a worthy recording and performance. The shaping of thematic lines, while sometimes quite angular, tend to have a sensitivity that allows them to feel less disjointed than might otherwise be the case. The orchestra seems to respond well to her direction in committed performances. These are richly-recorded in a warm acoustic that allows for interior details to be heard. The balance is truly fascinating. If you listen carefully to the central portion of the Fifth Symphony’s second movement, you can discern the various instrumental choirs vying within the texture. There is a flute line that matches the strings at times that never is artificially enhanced allowing for the subtlety of the scoring to be greatly appreciated.

Any release of American symphonic music is an event to be celebrated. There is only one other hard to find release of the Sixth from Albany Records featuring the Pacific Symphony with Keith Clark conducting. Alsop’s tempos are fairly close to Clark’s though she takes slightly more time in “Conflict” and “Affirmation.” For the Fifth, you need to hunt down a re-issue of an old Louisville Orchestra recording (which is worth acquiring for the recording of Harris’ Violin Concerto). Alsop continues to provide fantastic performances regardless of the nationality of the music she espouses but here we have two important works worthy of attention. Too often fans of American symphonic music are so happy to have a recording of this music that they will put up with anything. Fortunately, Naxos is providing us with an opportunity to truly hear this music in committed performances given the same loving attention that we would expect from European masters. Even casual listeners will find much to admire in the Sixth. The rest is simply more of a wonderful thing. Highly recommended!

Scott Cantrell
The Dallas Morning News, February 2010

Since the later 19th century, American composers have penned quite a lot of symphonies. And quite a few of them are worth hearing. But you’d never know that from the programming of U.S. orchestras, whose neglect of their symphonic heritage is a disgrace.

Born two years before Copland, Roy Harris is remembered, if at all, for the Third of his 13 symphonies. But the Fifth and Sixth, both composed during World War II, are striking and accomplished works. They sound a bit like Copland in his Americana vein, but craggier. Harris often borrowed from his own music, and he mined the seven-minute overture Acceleration for material for the Sixth Symphony.

Marin Alsop leads persuasive performances with England’s Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (where she was preceded by Andrew Litton, before he came to Dallas).

David Hurwitz, February 2010

This is an important release for collectors of contemporary American music. Roy Harris might best be thought of as a sort of “New World” Bruckner. His music is sometimes awkward, rhythmically clunky and unvaried, but also noble, searching, shot through with brass chorales and contrapuntal episodes, and ultimately uplifting. Both of these symphonies reveal these qualities.

No. 6, subtitled “Gettysburg”, despite the titles of its various movements (Awaking, Conflict, Dedication, Affirmation) is about as programmatic as Bruckner’s “Romantic” symphony. It works extremely well as absolute music. The same observation applies to the three-movement Fifth, which shares a very similar sound world. Both works were composed between 1942–44 when Harris was working at the peak of his inspiration.

Acceleration shares some thematic material with the Sixth symphony, and the title is deceptive. The movement hardly changes pace at all once it gets going, but as a seven-minute chuck of typical Harris it gets the job done nicely. To say that this music never has been better performed or recorded isn’t saying much, since it has received hardly any attention at all. Marin Alsop and the Bournemouth Symphony deliver heartfelt, sincere performances entirely in keeping with the spirit of the music, and they are very well recorded. I welcome this release with pleasure, and so will you.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, February 2010

Continuing the much acclaimed Naxos series of Roy Harris symphonies with two of his most dramatic scores in superlative performances. Born in 1898 and reared in a farming community, Harris’s employment as a farm hand and a lorry driver shared a young life with music studies. The first composition came at the age 24, but he was 30 before he wrote anything of significance. Then the floodgates opened, dividing his time between teaching and composing, a vast catalogue of works, in every genre, was assembled, including 14 symphonies. The Fifth dates from 1942 and was inspired by the heroic stance of the Russians against the invading Nazi forces. That is its backdrop, but the style is typically Harris, with two aggressive movements surrounding a long slow movement containing a dark and brooding funeral march that reaches an anguished peroration. The Sixth is a graphic description of scenes in the United States leading up to Abraham Lincoln’s famous ‘Gettysburg’ speech. Completing the disc is the 1941 score, Acceleration, its thematic material modified and recycled to form part of the Sixth Symphony. I don’t suppose any of the works have played a part in the Bournemouth orchestra’s staple diet, but they are an outstanding ensemble who play with the certainty and enthusiasm these highly charged scores need. At the other end of the spectrum the quiet opening of the Sixth is magical. As she has shown in previous releases, the conductor, Marin Alsop, has this music in her life-blood, and Naxos engineers have given her the wide dynamic range to work within., January 2010

Rachmaninoff’s warmth, expressiveness and death obsession (all those Dies Irae quotations) are temperamentally quite Russian. But there is also a strong—and surprising—Russian connection in American composer Roy Harris’ Symphony No 5. More properly, it is a Soviet connection: this is a war symphony, written in 1942, and it is dedicated (without a shred of irony, except in retrospect) to “the heroic and freedom-loving people of our great ally, the Union of Soviet Republics.” There is nothing sinister in this: the USSR was a crucial member of the Allies in World War II, bore the brunt of some of Hitler’s most brutal campaigns, suffered enormous casualties, and in triumphantly breaking the siege of Leningrad (St. Petersburg) gave the Allies an early foretaste of eventual victory. That the nation’s own brutal dictator, Stalin, killed more people than Hitler did was not fully understood until well after the war. And so Harris produced a dedication that was patriotic in its time for a three-movement symphony that has no apparent musical connection to the circumstances in which it was written. This fifth of Harris’ 16 symphonies is absolute music, its outer movements both growing organically from basic material presented at their openings. If there is a “war” element here, it is in the middle movement, which includes portions of a funeral march. The symphony also includes material from Acceleration, a single movement written a year earlier (1941) that Harris reworked when putting the symphony together.

A very different and wholly American war is the foundation of Harris’ Symphony No 6, “Gettysburg.” The work, although entirely instrumental, was inspired by quotations from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Its four movements bear titles relating to that famous speech: Awakening, Conflict, Dedication and Affirmation. But, as in his previous symphony, Harris delivers absolute rather than program music in Symphony No. 6. There is some tone painting of war in the second movement, but this is more a filmmaker’s idea of war than Lincoln’s: the movement starts as a march and builds steadily, featuring fragmentary brass themes and yawps before it ends abruptly. More obvious and less emotive than the other three movements, it seems oddly discordant—not in musical terms but in the way it communicates. The other movements have more of the Harris sound and structure, with the third movement’s quiet ending being especially effective and the coda of the finale wrapping things up colorfully. Marin Alsop, a champion of 20th-century American music (and generally a more effective conductor of it than of the standard repertoire), approaches these Harris pieces with a sure hand, building them effectively and maintaining a clear sense of their structure throughout. The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra plays well and idiomatically, showing Harris to be, if not a great composer, one with a strong sense of style and considerable skill in orchestration.

Robert R. Reilly, January 2010

I will briefly reach into an earlier period of America music to let you know about the new Naxos release of Roy Harris’s Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6, with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, under Marin Alsop (8.559609). This orchestra proved its chops in playing American music with the stunningly good performance of \ Giannini’s Symphony No. 4, reviewed last year. This time American conductor Alsop takes on Harris’s two wartime symphonies from 1942 and 1944, Nos. 5 and 6. Credited with writing the great American symphony, his Third, Harris (1898–1960) suffered from the reputation of being a one-work composer. It’s a scandal that all of his 13 symphonies have not been recorded long ago, though Naxos has stepped into the breach and is in the process of recording them.

Jeff Simon
The Buffalo News, January 2010

Roy Harris, Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6 performed by Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop (Naxos). He was born on Lincoln’s birthday and he never seemed to tire of ways to embarrass symphonic music. At first, in the ’30s and earliest ’40s, a wildly idiosyncratic composer who had been a farmer and once drove a milk truck seemed made to order for Depression and wartime America. But here we are, 67 years later, with a very strong 1942 Symphony No. 5 dedicated to “the heroic and freedom-loving people of our great ally, the Union of Soviet Republics,” and we’re in just as much discomfort as he provided in old age with one cranky opinion after another (all of which paled, of course, compared with the semi-rabid anti-Semitism of Carl Ruggles). Roy Harris was far from a “primitive” as some explicators would have it; he was a great and distinctively athletic prairie composer who could inspire others (the contrastingly cosmopolitan William Schuman) but remain inimitable. Alsop’s current efforts to record Harris’ unjustly neglected symphonies are tremendous.

Raymond S. Tuttle
International Record Review, March 2003

I have no complaints about Alsop, who is a sympathetic advocate for Harris’s music, and certainly none about the Bournemouth musicians, who, compared to their American counterparts, bring a richer, fuller sound into play…I think most listeners will be pleasantly surprised.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group