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CD Review

Barbara Harbach

Chamber Music I

  • American Solstice
  • Transformations for String Quartet
  • Forces at Play
  • Carondelet Caprice
  • Separately Together - Synesthesia
  • Rhapsody "Ritmico" for Brass Quintet
  • Fantasy & Fugue on Swing Low Sweet Chariot for Woodwind Quartet
Moyzes String Quartet
Ensemble Istropolis/Kirk Trevor
MSR Classics MS1253 2007 65:32
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Pretty.

Harpsichordist and organist Barbara Harbach has also compiled a modest catalogue of original work. MSR has brought out a slew of CDs showcasing her achievement in several genres. This volume presents music for chamber ensemble.

Harbach has gathered some friendly criticism, including a fine piece from Classical Net reviewer James Tobin. I can understand Tobin's point of view (see his review). The musical idiom – mostly pentatonic and folk-based (a variant of Copland Pastoral) – is attractive in itself. It's also, as Tobin points out, generally serene rather than titanic or troubled, a sensibility fairly rare in contemporary music. At her best, Harbach conveys a sane psychic balance.

I don't think quite as highly of her work, however, as Jim does. It seems to me she keeps running into the same difficulties. First and foremost, problems arise from her pentatonic idiom. If you just depress the black keys on a piano, you get a pretty nice sound, but it's like the cup that never tips over. Pentatonic music, if you don't take care, doesn't go anywhere. Harmonically, it stays put. Unfortunately, classically-based tonal music tends to depict major sections based on changes in key. Furthermore, the movement from one key to another usually pushes the work along. Vaughan Williams, also drawn to pentatonicism, nevertheless worked out a language that was both pentatonic and chromatic, probably for that reason. Often Harbach's music sounds stuck, it modulates so little. Also, pentatonic themes, if you don't watch out, tend to sound pretty much alike. A program of pentatonic music can bland out.

The disc opens with Harbach's best work here, American Solstice, a lovely piece, no matter how you look at it. It has all the beauty of the pentatonic without any of the stasis. You actually arrive somewhere new. Unfortunately, most of the other items stay put. Furthermore, their instrumentation is practically the same from one to the other. The other piece that stands out is the Fantasy and Fugue on Swing Low for wind quintet – first, because the instrumentation slightly differs (no strings and piano, for once); second, because the idiom is less pentatonic. Again, one seems to move along an argumentative line of the music. The fugue seems especially neat. The subject derives from the spiritual's "I looked over Jordan, and what did I see."

The performances, by Slovakian forces under the British conductor Kirk Trevor, are thoroughly professional.

Copyright © 2010, Steve Schwartz.