, June 2012
The Symphony No. 2 sets eight poems by New Zealand writer Vincent O’Sullivan, a frequent collaborator with Harris. In the First World War, a number of New Zealand soldiers were shot for desertion, including one who piqued O’Sullivan’s interest. The young man was caught hiding in plain sight in a French village where he lived with a local woman. The poems talk about the false glory of war, the real horror of it, the compassion of the Frenchwoman, the love affair, the arrest and death of the boy, and the widow’s lament. O’Sullivan is a master of traditional forms and has a fine sense of “word music.” I can well understand the appeal of these poems to Harris. More importantly, O’Sullivan avoids preaching. Things are what they are, tragic enough on their own without the need for special pleading.
Harris arranges the poems into four movements. The first, after an “open-sky” intro, becomes a savagely satiric march depicting the young New Zealanders’ sendoff to Europe.
The slow second movement introduces the French girl, and we get it almost entirely in her voice. It’s another A-B-A form. The beginning hypnotizes with a sad, Sondheim-like melody that worries a three-note riff. The middle depicts a desperate gaiety as the soldier and the girl court, the girl burdened with ill omen. A variant of the beginning, both in melody and mood, ends the movement in anxiety.
The third movement functions as a grotesque scherzo, telling of the soldier’s arrest and execution. Even here, we get pieces as well as a restraint on overt judgment. O’Sullivan doesn’t want to tell us what to feel. He wants us to “feel the facts” and to judge from that. Harris largely determines the affect of these poems, and he gives us a danse macabre out of Breughel—among the most vivid parts of the symphony. A little requiem follows as a trio where the Frenchwoman announces the fact of the boy’s death…
A long lament leads to the finale, where the girl regrets that she will never see her husband’s native country, recalled now solely through what he told her. The music might just break your heart. The music struggles for resolution, ultimately in a soprano vocalise, reminding us of the “open-sky” music at the symphony’s very outset.
The Third Symphony is all-instrumental and…spreads out in four continuous movements. Compared to the Second Symphony, this one deals in greater complication. Textures are snarlier, themes gnarlier, and rhythms squirrelier, with what sounds like “irrational” cross-rhythms…Metronomic changes occur sometimes within a phrase, and more than once, to boot. Harris can get away with this stuff in a non-vocal work.
With the exception of Slovenian conductor Marko Letonja, this is an all-kiwi production, and very good it is, too. The Aucklanders ably champion two complex works. Letonja keeps the Second Symphony moving right along and finely shapes the builds and falls to and from the emotional jackpots. The work tempts an interpreter to go for emotional broke all the time, thus evening out the peaks and lessening their power. Letonja not only avoids the trap, but gets real clout at the summits. Furthermore, in a live performance, he and his players manage to pull together large sections of the Symphony No. 3. Soprano Madeleine Pierard sings O’Sullivan’s text with operatic power and Lieder intelligence. © 2012 ClassicalCDReview.com Read complete review