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Review: American Rapture

Richard Cummings, MusicWeb International. Click here for the original review.

 

This is an unusual disc in the way it is presented: the cover gives the most prominent billing among the performers to the harpist, Yolanda Kondonassis, who is featured in only one work; yet the album’s title comes from the shortest piece, Rapture; but the most substantial composition on the CD, in my view at least, is the Barber First Symphony. Though we have three American works here, they are rather odd bedfellows still: two 21st century compositions, one a harp concerto and the other a short orchestral piece, sandwich a 1936 symphony. If there’s one thing all three works do have in common beside their American origins, it is that their music is quite accessible, and mostly of high quality. These are, by the way, première recordings of the concerto and Rapture.

The Higdon Harp Concerto is comprised of four movements, each bearing a subtitle: 1) First Light, 2) Joy Ride, 3) Lullaby, and 4) Rap Knock. The opening movement begins with the harp stating the gentle main theme, which has a skeletal character and sort of tentative gait as it seems to be awakening. Much springs from it as the movement proceeds, the music taking on a mostly bright and optimistic manner. Though there are robust and vigorous moments from the orchestra, the music overall is ethereal and often serene. The ensuing panel is lively and quite playful and its music, especially in the harp writing, maintains a somewhat subdued and gentle manner. The third movement lives up to its title, Lullaby, with songful, intimate music, the scoring chamber-like with only solo instruments in the orchestra joining in. In the finale the character of the music does an about-face, turning to a sassy, jazzy, rock and roll-like demeanor that yields much colour and clever effects, especially in the strumming sounds from the harp. Yet, this movement strikes me as the least effective of the four: yes, it has a deft slapstick character and some infectious rhythms from the percussion, but its bouncy, sometimes Bernstein-tinged scoring and somewhat shallow expressive manner can wear thin on repeated hearings. Still, overall the work is a fine achievement for Higdon.

The internationally acclaimed harpist Yolanda Kondonassis is the dedicatee of the concerto and not surprisingly plays it with utter authority, as if she’s the conduit directly from the composer. She captures the spirit of the work and confidently negotiates the often tricky writing with seeming ease. She plays with nuance and subtlety in her phrasing, with all-encompassing technique, and always with what sounds a most judicious and appropriate tempo. In the end it would be difficult to imagine a more vital and committed performance of the work. Of course, Ward Stare and the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra must be given a share of the credit for their fine effort too. Stare, a Rochester native, is the conductor of the orchestra, from 2014.

The Barber First Symphony is the more popular of the composer’s two works in the genre. Cast in one movement, it features three themes from which the symphony’s materials are derived. It can be viewed as having four inner movements, each bearing a separate marking: 1) Allegro ma non troppo; 2) Allegro molto; 3) Andante tranquillo; and 4) Con moto. It is said to be modeled after the Sibelius Seventh Symphony (1924) and while there are structural and other similarities, I believe the two works are spiritually rather far apart. The Barber symphony is a defiant though heroic piece in the first two sections, but then becomes more settled in the third and then conflicted in the final portion, a passacaglia. I would say that the work is a masterpiece, but a minor one, perhaps on the level of, or even slightly better than, the Roy Harris Third Symphony, also a one movement affair.

Ward Stare and his Rochester players deliver a powerful performance of the work, infusing the music with spirit, pointing up meaningful detail, clearly delineating competing lines, finding what always strikes the ear as an ideal tempo and playing with accuracy and precision, attacks sounding crisp and imposing, lush moments warm and beautiful. In the end this must be assessed as an excellent performance, even when considered against such formidable competition as David Zinman on Argo with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, in faster tempos (most noticeably in the second and final sections), and Marin Alsop and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, on a well filled Naxos disc (with Symphony No. 2, The School for Scandal Overture, and First Essay for Orchestra). Barber mavens would generally prefer discs with all-Barber repertory, but this account of the First Symphony is as compelling a performance as I’ve heard, one that they may want to explore.

Patrick Harlin’s Rapture is a brief work portraying the extreme emotions experienced by cavers when they are deep inside a cave. In the album notes the composer describes the feeling as “exponentially worse than a panic attack and at times a near religious experience.” The music is colourful and wild, very atmospheric in its depiction of extreme feelings and happenings: you sense it is leading you somewhere and promising something devastating or wonderful. It seems constantly roiling or building toward an outburst, even in its few quiet moments. You might feel that perhaps the work could have been longer, but then maybe its brevity makes it more effective. In any event, it’s a very interesting and gripping piece, even if it might strike the listener, at least initially, as a bit chaotic. Again, Maestro Stare and his Rochester players deliver a stunning, thoroughly convincing performance.

The sound reproduction in all works is excellent, even though the recordings were taken down during live concerts. The album notes contain a commentary from each composer about their work. Barber’s is excerpted from Barbara Heyman’s 1992 book Samuel Barber: The Composer and His Music. Despite the somewhat short timing, this is a quite worthwhile disc for those interested in Barber and contemporary music.