JOHN HARBISON: String Trio; Four Songs of Solitude; Songs America Loves to Sing – Camerata Pacifica – Harmonia mundi

JOHN HARBISON: String Trio; Four Songs of Solitude; Songs America Loves to Sing – Camerata Pacifica – Harmonia mundi HMU 907619, 70:15 (9/09/14) ***1/2:

John Harbison has been one of America’s pre-eminent composers for a long time now. Interestingly – and for a variety of reasons – his name is not as widely known as many of his generational counterparts. Yet, I think it should be.

Harbison’s music is consistently engaging and easy to listen to. His scores are characterized by a predominantly tonal palate and often by beautiful melodies. He is one those many talented composers who does have a unique “voice” but one not characterized by any ‘gimmicky’ tone colors or quirky orchestrations. That is in my mind one of his strengths.

I am familiar with some of his music, most particularly the opera The Great Gatsby, his choral work The Flight Into Egypt and his brilliant Piano Concerto. This collection of works performed by the greatly talented Camerata Pacifica is a bit more intimate in scale and showcases Harbison’s love of American folk, jazz and hymn works very well.

The charming String Trio is a very fine six movement work has as its most unusual inspiration the Spanish soccer star, Lionel Messi (Harbison being a big soccer fan, as well.) There are no hints to this homage in the movement titles or anything. In fact, in some interview comments about the piece from 2012, the composer acknowledges that many of the motives in the piece are somehow derived from Messi’s names and that the great string trios of Mozart and Beethoven have served as a life-long source of inspiration; but no details are provided. Regardless, this is very commanding work that contains moments of great beauty as well as some drama.

The Four Songs of Solitude was written as a solo violin work for the composer’s wife, Rose Mary Harbison. Each of the four “songs” does have a bit of yearning and melancholic feel to it that, at times, make the work sound a bit emotionally “distant” and, yet, it is a beautiful, sometimes moody showcase for any fine violinist.

I confess my favorite work in this collection was the wholly uplifting and ‘crowd-pleasing’ Songs America Loves to Sing. This is, in many ways, exactly what it sounds like. Harbison takes ten of the country’s best known folk melodies – everything from “Amazing Grace” to the “St. Louis Blues” and quite a pastiche along the way – and gives these melodies a fresh, sometimes off-putting spin. There are, for example, some ‘dark’ moments in “Amazing Grace” that change the tone temporarily. The well-known Christian hymn, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”, is given a kind of soft ‘Revival piano’ feel and the iconic civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” is given a nearly Classical feel, bordering on something Baroque. (Not to mention the very dreamy, almost Impressionistic spin on ‘Happy Birthday’ that closes this work.)

Many of Harbison’s songs and choral works seek to pay homage or give a renewed spin to traditional melodies and never to “destroy and rebuild” but always to evoke style and give credence to the rich traditions within. John Harbison has always been inspired by ‘Americana’ and the religious elements within our society. This is part of what defines his style and I like it.

As I mentioned, Harbison has been a very well respected composer and well known in some circles for a long time. However if he is a new name for you, this very attractive collection of some of his more “personal” chamber music is something you should hear. The performances are superb and Harmonia mundi’s sound engineering is of its usual excellent quality.

—Daniel Coombs

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