ROSS HARRIS: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3 – Madeleine Pierard, sop./ Auckland Philharmonia Orch./Marko Letonja – Naxos 8.572574, 78:22 ***:
New Zealand composer Ross Harris taught music at Victoria University of Wellington for over thirty years before retiring in 2004. A residency with the Auckland Philharmonia in 2005-6 resulted in three symphonies. He’s been awarded the SOUNZ contemporary award (the most prestigious annual award for New Zealand composers) four times.
His Second Symphony (2006) was inspired by the posthumous award to a number of New Zealand soldiers who were shot for desertion in World War I. Together with the author Vincent O’Sullivan, eight poems, sung by soprano Madeleine Pierard, are interwoven into the tapestry of the symphony. It tells the story of one soldier’s stand for “emotional certainty and freedom when everything worked against it,” – when the soldier fell in love with a woman and deserted. The music is tonal and evocative of the drama of war. It contains moments of great beauty, violence and sadness as the tale progresses from the introduction of wartime, to the discovery of love, the desertion, the capture and the execution. Madeleine Pierard sings beautifully, except for some of her high notes, and the orchestra plays well and is sumptuously recorded. This is a moving work, well worth a hearing for those seeking something new.
Harris’ Third Symphony (2008) was inspired by the paintings of Marc Chagall and klezmer music. It’s a long (over 44 minutes), sprawling work with an opening movement that seems to be a hodgepodge of interesting moments, grandly scored, that don’t coalesce into a meaningful whole. The rest of the symphony unravels these strands, and, by the slow third movement, becomes expressive, with its klezmer roots evident. There’s even a whiff of the Dies Irae. This work has its quiet and melodic moments that are mixed with equally chaotic ones, reminiscent of the kind of musical juxtaposition of Charles Ives’ compositions. Unlike Harris’ Second Symphony, this is not a significant addition to the symphonic repertoire.
An excellent DG debut!