Harbison/Sessions

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Harbison/Sessions
LABELS: Decca
WORKS: Harbison: Symphony No. 2; Oboe Concerto; Sessions: Symphony No. 2
PERFORMER: William Bennett (oboe)San Francisco Symphony/Herbert Blomstedt
CATALOGUE NO: 443 376-2 DDD
You don’t have to hate Philip Glass and John Adams to feel that much new American music – especially orchestral music – is merely flashy. All the more reason, then, to admire someone like John Harbison: a composer of Glass’s generation who, though fostered by the universities Glass reacted so strongly against, tries to write music which draws on, for instance, jazz and Baroque sources without being just hip.

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The trouble is that his works not only fail to make the emotional impact he seems to seek, but also lack individuality. Harbison’s 1991-2 Oboe Concerto is technically expert, if rather short-winded; it’s surely as sincere about its effort as it is probably rewarding to play (and the soloist William Bennett is compelling and unflashy). But both this and his Second Symphony of 1987 – like all three works here, written for San Francisco – leave me cold.

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Roger Sessions, Harbison’s teacher, had the same problem. I admire his search for an alternative to the flashy music of his own generation (the Americana works of Copland). But Sessions’s Second Symphony of 1944-6 – even its slow third movement, a threnody for Franklin D Roosevelt – lacks the power and individuality which have made Copland’s Third Symphony of the same period so famous. Excellent performances and recording. Keith Potter