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Barbara HARBACH: Orchestra Music III, Portraits in Sound – London PO/ David Angus – MSR Classics 

Barbara HARBACH: Orchestra Music III, Portraits in Sound – London Philharmonic Orchestra/ David Angus – MSR Classics MSR 1614, 62:54 [Distr. by Albany] ****:

Volume 11 in this impressive series proves a winner

This is the eleventh volume of MSR’s extraordinary commitment to Barbara Harbach, polyglot extraordinaire, by the looks of her resume one of the busiest musicians on the planet, wonderful keyboardist (organ and harpsichord), and, at times, a very fine composer. In fact, her prolific output defies all normal ideas of time management, and she must spill out music like Mozart with a never-ending sense of inspiration.

If I seem cautious it is because I detect an unevenness in the composer’s output. Of course, one could argue this about any composer, but sometimes Harbach’s music seems incomplete to me, or at least lagging in ideas that were perhaps put down on final paper too soon. I am happy to report that most the works on this symphonies disc fall into the “excellent” category, and are quite moving and enthralling. Her style doesn’t vary too much—I can’t see her music existing without other of the “American” school like Harris and Thomson—but her ideas, in many instances, bolster the exceptional construction and immersion into a truly tonal idiom that is her hallmark.

“O Pioneers”, her Seventh Symphony, is taken from her opera of the same name. The three movements are based on three songs portraying the four main characters of Willa Cather’s novel. “The Scarlett Letter” is her Eighth Symphony, an original work based also on the main characters of Hawthorne’s masterpiece. Both symphonies share a similar tone, with the Eighth a magnificent example of character-based tone painting, evocative orchestration, and moving melodic ideas.

Harbach penned a film score The Celestial Symphony based on a 1906 silent movie, “The Birth, Life, and Death of Christ”. The three movements “Annunciation”, “Celestial Vaults” (reflecting on St. Veronica) and “Temptations” (three temptations that Satan offered Christ before his crucifixion) are drawn from the inner depths Harbach undoubtedly feels from all her years involved with sacred music. Having not seen the film I cannot comment on the efficacy of the visual/ aural experience, but the music as it stands is most attractive and evocative.

Her 10th Symphony, “Ferguson”, is titled after the 2014 Ferguson, Missouri mess that received worldwide attention. Not living in St. Louis—and working there, as Harbach does—the immediacy of emotion and response no doubt eludes me, and I can see why an artist in that sort of highly-charged environment might feel the need to comment on current events. And to her credit she does not take sides or enter the purely political aspects of the event. But as in most of these sorts of pieces, the artistic side is something that, to me, never quite captures the moment, and this work doesn’t either. It’s not bad, just rather artificial, despite the “universal” sentiments that she attempts to capture.

Perhaps many will not agree with that assessment. No matter, for this is a very fine disc with some wonderful music that should assuage any concerns about Harbach’s muse—a very active, intelligent, and moving one. The London Phil plays with passion and energy in a wonderfully resonant recording.

—Steven Ritter

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