Harris: Symphony No. 3; Symphony No. 4 (Folk Song Symphony)

COMPOSERS: Harris
LABELS: Naxos
ALBUM TITLE: Harris
WORKS: Symphony No. 3; Symphony No. 4 (Folk Song Symphony)
PERFORMER: Colorado Symphony Chorus; Colorado Symphony/Marin Alsop
CATALOGUE NO: 8.559227
This disc is billed as the first volume of a projected cycle of all 13 of Roy Harris’s orchestral symphonies, though Naxos already have Nos 7 and 9, conducted by Theodore Kuchar, in this same ‘American Classics’ series. The single-movement Third Symphony (1938) is by a long way Harris’s best known work, made famous by Koussevitsky’s performances and several recordings including two classic accounts by Bernstein. Listening to this new entrant I wondered if Bernstein, especially in his magisterial 1961 version, hadn’t spoiled us for the music with the epic ruggedness and vibrant cinemascope of his interpretation – Alsop sounds small-scale, almost chamber-musical by comparison, and the Colorado Symphony itself seems underpowered (indeed the disc is recorded at quite a low level in a less than brilliant acoustic). Yet though it can’t displace Bernstein, or indeed Neeme Järvi’s fine account for Chandos, I found this quite a thoughtful, meditative interpretation that probes deeper into the lyric aspects of the score.

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Both are live performances taken at the Performing Arts Center in Denver, Colorado, and oddities of balance are apparent when we come to the much longer Folksong Symphony (1939), a looser, fantasia-like (but very attractive) structure interweaving cowboy, negro and Civil War tunes for chorus and orchestra. Here the male voices sound distant, the female too forward, the orchestral space rather cavernous. It’s a very decent account of a rather underrated piece, so it’s a pity my welcome for the disc has to be muted. Nonetheless, I’ll look out for future issues with anticipation. Calum MacDonald