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CD Review

Barbara Harbach

Music for Strings

  • Sinfonietta
  • In Memoriam: Turn Round, O My Soul
  • Freedom Suite
  • 2 Songs from The Sacred Harp
  • Demarest Suite
  • Nights in Timisoara
  • Lilia Polka (Kate Chopin arr. Harbach)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/David Angus
MSR Classics MS1258 67:45
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Mixed string bag.

Barbara Harbach, a fine harpsichordist and organist, also composes and has compiled a fair body of work. I mostly like what she writes, but not to the same degree as her fans. To her credit, her work sounds well, sometimes even beautifully. However, she too often finds herself in key-center stasis, due to a largely modal and pentatonic idiom. Even the modal composers of the Renaissance shifted the tonal base within a single work (although they didn't, strictly speaking, modulate). Also I sometimes find her abrupt and wish either her phrases or the work itself would go on longer, that she'd mine her material more deeply. This is usually one of the traps a habitual improviser like an organist (especially one who plays in church) can fall into. Finally, I seldom find real development in her work. I don't consider the latter absolutely necessary, but depending on simpler forms like rondo and variation, as Harbach tends to do, can make such a collection of pieces as we have here monotonous.

Now that I've aired my praises and my gripes, let me get to the specific scores. In Memoriam: Turn Round, O My Soul, written for All Souls' Day, shoots down all my negatives – simply stone beautiful. I worried that the emotional climax of the piece occurs less than half-way in – a real risk. How could she possibly sustain interest? Yet the piece gripped me to the end. I especially enjoyed her occasional elongation of phrases by an extra beat, as if the mind stopped to reflect on a particular soul now gone.

The Freedom Suite's materials come from the circumstances of its commission, the commemoration of Martin Luther King Day. Nevertheless, the Black spiritual has always inspired Harbach, as have the Protestant classic hymn tunes, the shape-note hymns of early America, and Appalachian folk music. Despite the attractiveness and the ingenuity of individual sections (a triple canon on "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" in the second movement, for example), I consider this a rather weak score, mostly due to a lack of real musical argument. In many ways, it resembles a night of vaudeville, where one act follows a completely different one. The sections of each movement are distinct and predictable as to when they occur, with too-obvious transitions between.

The Two Songs from The Sacred Harp, perhaps the most influential collection of shape-note hymnody, are "The Morning Trumpet" and William Billings's "Chester," the latter also treated by William Schuman in his classic New England Triptych. Harbach's "Morning Trumpet" has the same major deficiency as the Freedom Suite – lack of musical argument, the feeling that one section necessarily follows another – and it ends too quickly. I asked myself, "Where's the rest of it?" "Chester" fares better, although it actually runs shorter than "The Morning Trumpet." However, you have only to compare it to Schuman's treatment to see, in Mark Twain's phrase, the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.

The Demarest Suite, written for a high school in Demarest, New Jersey, recycles material from her opera O Pioneers! in the outer movements and uses a tango (or habanera) rhythm for the middle. Each movement has a program of sorts. I don't get the connection between program and music in the first two movements, but I don't really need to. Again, the music comes at you in sections, but this time it doesn't seem to matter. I feel that Harbach is essentially a miniaturist, like Grieg or Poulenc. The initial thought means everything. If it doesn't raise a certain amount of interest throughout, the entire piece falls apart. The level of invention must remain consistently high. Yet the miniaturist's inspiration is relatively short-winded. To make a longer piece such a composer resorts either to repetition or to stitching together a series of miniatures. I don't look down on such works, per se, so long as the music can bear repetition or the inspiration of each section soars, as it does in Grieg's Piano Concerto and Poulenc's Stabat mater. The suite consists of three miniatures. I like the first two. The "joyous" finale tries too hard to convince.

Nights in Timisoara, a musical postcard from Romania and enlarged from an organ original, seems good enough until you compare it with the competition: Glinka's Jota aragonesa, Jacques Ibert's Escales, Respighi's Roman trilogy, and Bartók's Romanian Dances. Transitions between sections have all the substance of tissue paper. In a collection of works like this, we continually re-encounter Harbach's favorite techniques, particularly fugue and stretto, and it gets tired. The fugues usually don't attempt very much, technically or emotionally, and they too suffer from lack of breath.

The New Orleans novelist Kate Chopin wrote for her daughter a little piano polka, which Harbach has arranged twice: once for woodwinds; once for strings. We hear the latter. The polka is over in a blink, and you'll probably forget it five minutes after you hear it. Yet while it plays, it exudes lightness and charm, especially in its gently syncopated first theme. Harbach arranges it with skill and taste. This isn't simply a transcription of piano voices. There are effective doublings and pizzicatos.

However, the Sinfonietta satisfies me the most, mainly because (at least in the first two movements) it tends to flow in long paragraphs, rather than in short scraps, without sacrificing any of Harbach's musical attractiveness. The first and second movements also re-use material from the composer's O Pioneers!, which I'd like to hear, since it would count as the first large Harbach work I would have met with and might reveal the composer's artistic profile in more detail than I now have. Who knows? Perhaps she's not a miniaturist after all. The first movement meditates, much like slow movements in Alan Hovhaness. The second movement dances, with a violin melody coming against an ostinato against the beat. It's a honey of an aphasia. The finale, in what I think of as a typical Harbach grab-bag, nevertheless has the energy to sail over the splices. Even the inevitable fugue doesn't slow me down.

The LPO does a very fine job, but they're professionals, after all. David Angus doesn't solve all the problems Harbach's scores throw his way, but he presents them honestly, warts and all. The entire production is quite good, from recording to liner notes.

Copyright © 2014, Steve Schwartz