American Classics - Harris: Complete Piano Music / Burleson

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These days, Roy Harris is remembered as the composer of a famous 3rd Symphony, who wrote a lot of other Symphonies, but whose other music is hardly known, let alone heard. There is a school of thought which believes that beyond the 3rd Symphony most of his work isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. Certainly there appears to be a lack of self-criticism on Harris’s part which allowed less well constructed and written works out into the public arena. Works such as the Concerto for Piano, Clarinet and String Quartet, op.2 (1927), String Quartet No.3, Four Preludes and Fugues (1937), Violin Sonata (1941) and the chamber cantata Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight (1953), not to mention the orchestral works When Johnny Comes Marching Home: An American Overture (1934), the Violin Concerto (1949) and the 1st (1933) and 7th (1955) Symphonies show a composer of real stature. The chamber works could so easily be programmed but they’re not and our not hearing them is our loss, and a significant loss at that.

None of the pieces on this disk could be claimed to be major works but there are some very attractive and interesting things nonetheless. The two sets of American Ballads use folk-tunes, such as The Streets of Laredo and When Johnny Comes Marching Home, and are delightful suites with some nice quirky turns of phrase. In feel they are reminiscent of Barber’s Excursions for piano and would enrich any recital of modernish piano music. The early Sonata is a tersely argued work in four succinct movements, and it’s easy to see why the original scherzo wouldn’t have fitted into Harris’s scheme of things. The Piano Suite is another strong work; the first movement is bold and brassy, demonstrative and forthright, the middle movement pensive and the finale a French flavoured gigue.

For the rest we have six miniatures. The Toccata contains elements of both the headlong rush you’d expect from such a work, and short reflective interludes. The Variations on an American Folksong, True Love Don’t Weep starts in a most serious manner, becomes lighter then just as you think it’s going somewhere it stops! Untitled is, I believe, the earliest piece we know by Harris and it’s very strange, questing and angular, almost tuneless and imbued with an otherworldly feel. Little Suite is fun, this could almost be a teaching piece. A Happy Piece for Shirley is a delightful tribute. Orchestrations, a strange title for a solo piano piece, especially from someone as adept at orchestration as Harris, is very serious and profound.

Whilst most of these works have been recorded before, it’s good to have them collected together on one disk, and although none of them can claim pretensions to be a lost masterpiece, they are more than mere chippings off the block of genius. The performances have an air of authority about them and the recording is clean and clear. The notes, if not exhaustive, are helpful. Essential for anyone investigating the Symphonies which Naxos is in the process of recording and there are works here which pianists should be investigating when seeking something piquant for their recitals.

-- Bob Briggs, MusicWeb International

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 8559664

  • UPC: 636943966426

  • Label: Naxos

  • Composer: Roy Harris

  • Performer: Geoffrey Burleson