“Music of Barbara Harbach, Chamber Music IV (Vol. 8)” = Incantata; Harriet’s Story; Phantom of the Dreams’ Origin; The Sounds of St. Louis – Marlissa Hudson, sop./ St. Louis Ch. Players/ St. Louis Low Brass Collective/ James Richards – MSR Classics MS 1259, 74:33 [Distr. by Albany] ****:
In these pages harpsichordist/ composer Barbara Harbach’s music has been received as reserved, “accessible and idiomatic” (Daniel Coombs) “lively, engaging, folksy, somewhat forgettable” (Lee Passarella) to “very diatonic and accessible but never corny or of what you would call ‘light music’” (John Sunier).
I’m not quite sure where I stand in all this diversity, but in each way each of these critics has nailed her music pretty well. I have heard nothing of Harbach’s that I find offensive or objectionable, most of it is pleasant to listen to, not at all “light” as Sunier says, well-crafted and well-thought out, but also rarely profound. In other words, I don’t hear much that strikes me as being absolutely essential to further listening experiences, though I would not run to the dial and turn it off if it happened to show up on the radio or some friend’s sound system. While listening to it I am often enthralled but don’t really find myself seeking it out later. Harbach, a noted organist and harpsichordist and Professor of Music at University of Missouri—St. Louis, is pretty well-recorded as modern composers go, and MSR has devoted at least eight volumes to her talents thus far. It is also possible that she is simply too prolific, and that there are gems to be found in this vast field of work that will emerge with repeated hearings over time.
Three pieces on this disc are from 2011, and they all sound like it. The style is remarkably similar, especially in the chamber ensemble pieces, and they all remind me of Stravinsky in his more pastoral and calmer moments. Incantata is inspired by a Paul Muldoon poem of the same title, and the music seeks to reflect the emotions found therein in movements “Perplexities”, “Nocturnes”, Ireland Remembered”, “Bitter-sweet”, and “Coda”. I enjoyed it a lot. When the last work on this disc, Phantom of the Dreams’ Origin appears, based on Nikos Stabakis’s translation of the Embirikos Blast Furnace (1935), I was expecting something far dreamier—as this is what the composer was looking for at the time—than what I got. Perhaps it’s the percussive nature of this score, complete with glockenspiel, castanets, triangle, bell tree, crotales, timpani, and suspended cymbals that makes Harbach’s notion of dreaminess different than mine—and that is certainly a valid comment—which throws me off. Anyway, it is still fascinating music, and again, one hardly wants to leave it while it is playing.
The Sounds of St. Louis incorporates a series of American folk songs with Harbach’s own considerable skill in fugal writing for a low brass ensemble. The results are not as folksy as you would think, being dominated by the bluesy feel of W.C. Handy’s own St. Louis Blues, with a pseudo-rock beat that spoiled it all for me. I found the piece the weakest of the lot, lacking any sort of sustained interest despite being so well-played by the St. Louis Low Brass Collective, all members of the wonderful St. Louis Symphony.
Yet the strongest piece here, the short song cycle Harriet’s Story for soprano, piano, and violin, is quite the stunner, with soprano Marlissa Hudson delivering a splendid performance. The lyrics by the composer are put in the voice of Harriet Scott (of Dred Scott fame) while the third movement uses the genuine texts of Harriet Tubman, the former slave and African-American abolitionist, humanitarian, and Union spy during the American Civil War. The music is affecting and lyrical, passionate and versatile, making me wonder if Harbach shouldn’t spend more time than she has in this genre—she certainly seems to have an innate talent for it.
Harbach is well worth hearing, and perhaps I might come to some different conclusions about her music as a whole if I ever get the chance to sample a lot of it at once. As is, it leaves a feeling as being quite tempting yet curiously incomplete, an unfinished story so to speak. But I sincerely doubt if anyone will be disappointed with what they find on this disc, recorded with great consistency and presence.
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