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CD Review

Barbara Harbach

Toccatas, Flourishes & Fugues
A Celebration of Hymns

  • Chester
  • In Babilone
  • Azmon
  • O Waly Waly
  • Chorale Fantasy on Ein feste Burg
  • Rêverie on Vater unser
  • Finale on Ein feste Burg
  • Kingsfold
  • Sufferer
  • Land of Rest
  • Fantasy and Fugue on Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
  • Holy Manna
  • Gloria
  • Besançon
  • Antioch
  • Forest Green
  • Darwall's 148th
  • Llangloffan
  • Wade in the Water
  • Ar Hyd Y Nos
  • Hermas
  • The Morning Trumpet
  • Christ lag in Todesbanden
  • Erre Gyere
Barbara Harbach, organ
MSR Classics MS1254 65:32
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Harbach's Hymnal.

Distinguished harpsichordist and organist Barbara Harbach also composes. I've paid her original music a lot of left-handed compliments, but I confess that this CD made a much deeper impression on me. Mrs. Schwartz's little boy has undoubtedly logged more hours in church than in temple, and among other things, it was the liturgical music in my temple, that drove me out. I began to sing in local church choirs, undoubtedly because they did better music, since I'm probably one of the least spiritual people you'll ever meet. At any rate, I became an aficionado of church organists, since I luckily found myself in the company of really good ones. Almost all of the them improvised well and, in some cases, brilliantly.

Someone once asked Vaughan Williams whether he regretted giving up so many years of original composition to work on the classic English Hymnal. Not a bit of it, he said. He got the opportunity to work with some of the best tunes in the world. That's one of the perks of church musicianship, at least if you work for people who don't insist on up-to-the-minute relevance. Harbach has given something back to the tunes she's worked with a lot of her life.

This CD presents Harbach's arrangements for organ of mostly well-known hymns, as well as, in one case, an original. I suspect that many of them came from her church improvisations, which she then polished. She selects material eclectically, with a special fondness for shape-note hymns and African-American spirituals, and she displays great variety in her treatments. Because of the brevity of most of these items, her main compositional problem – building a satisfying formal whole over a long span – doesn't come up.

Harbach's approach to writing for the organ follows more the French school than the German. More than once, she put me in mind of Widor. She employs many different devices: flourish, trio en taille, and toccata, as well as the more contrapuntal canon and fugue. Her fugues tend to confine themselves to initial entries before they evaporate into something else, although she does have extended examples. She often, as in her take on William Billings's Chester, crams many of these devices into the same piece.

In Babilone begins as a prelude or fantasy and ends with an intriguing "asymmetrical" fugue, where the entries come not at regular intervals, but practically at will, on or off the beat. O Waly Waly, better known as "The Water is Wide," sings tenderly and simply. It's one of my favorites of the set. In general, Harbach does less well with the Lutheran or 18th-century standards like Ein feste Burg and Antioch ("Joy to the World") than she does with the British and American folk hymns. Among the British settings, Kingsfold ("Dives and Lazarus"), Forest Green (the British tune to "O Little Town of Bethlehem"), and Ar Hyd Y Nos ("All Through the Night") stood out. Most of them tend to trios, and the simplicity of texture enhances them.

Harbach excels in the shape-note hymns, possibly because her own idiom has much in common, as shown by her original Gloria, a lively gigue, which resembles but doesn't imitate "The Lord is to His Garden Come" from The Southern Harmony. Furthermore, her treatment of the 16th-century Vater unser plunks that tune down in the middle of the Cumberlands.

The African-American spirituals, however, seem to set Harbach's imagination free. She has favorites that turn up again and again, even in those settings supposedly featuring other hymns: "Wade in the Water," "Balm in Gilead," and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." Her treatment of the echt-British Kingsfold, for example, weaves in those three, plus "My Lord, What a Morning." It's as if the modal nature of British folk music and the Spiritual provides a substantive kinship, a musical Rosetta Stone. Sufferer, a dramatic meditation on Christ's Passion, begins (after a hint of "Jesu, meine Freude") with "Mumblin' Word." "Swing Low" and "Balm in Gilead" enter into the mix, and Harbach gives the latter fugal treatment. "Swing Low," an obvious Harbach fave, also shows up in a chamber setting, with a similar fugue on the phrase "I looked over Jordan, and what did I see." Here, she gives it another full-on treatment: declamatory, then lyrical, the fugue, another lyrical episode, fugue again briefly, and finally toccata.

The organ, the Aeolian-Skinner at St. Louis's Christ Church Cathedral, is very well recorded indeed. I enjoyed this disc quite a bit, especially since I knew almost every melody, but I don't think that's a requirement. Spend some time with some of the best tunes in the world.

Copyright © 2011, Steve Schwartz.