Copland Symphony 3/Harris Symphony 3
Arguably the best American symphony coupled with arguably the best-known American symphony makes an ideal pairing on paper. Sad to report, however, I have considerable reservations. Roy Harris’s Third is one of the most awesomely concentrated of all twentieth-century symphonic structures, but you wouldn’t guess it from Neeme Jarvi’s loose-limbed, disconcertingly slack conception. As the opening few minutes quickly reveal, the orchestral playing is neat but cruelly lacks bite and tension. Where’s the sense of tingling expectancy in these measures, the feeling of setting out on some fantastic musical voyage? Whither the bite of fortissimo trombones and horns on their first appearance? And whatever happened to the burgeoning lyricism of the pages that follow? In the central portion (so potently suggestive of the vast horizons of the prairies and their fields of rippling wheat) Jarvi opens out the two small cuts practised by Koussevitzky and Bernstein, but given the disinterested nature of the music-making, the restoration of these extra bars is not necessarily a boon. And so it goes on. The tremendous fugue barely gets off the ground, generating none of the volcanic power and implacable momentum so evident in the two Bernstein accounts (CBS, 6/76 and DG, 11/87 – both nla) and Koussevitzky’s fabulous 1939 Boston reading, while Jarvi’s brusquely impatient handling of the tolling peroration merely gives the impression that session-time was running out (and why the sudden, ugly lurch forward in tempo at the beginning of this section?). All in all, the performance is a bitter disappointment, to say the least.
Copland’s mighty Third fares more happily, but I’m still far from convinced that Jarvi really has this repertoire well and truly in his bloodstream. For all the agreeable security of the orchestral response, I don’t register any especial dedication or inspirational sense of occasion about proceedings. Indeed, a certain literalness and ‘let’s get on with it’ efficiency tend to scupper large portions of the symphony’s first half; the searching string dialogue with which the slow movement opens also lacks the last ounce of eloquence (and, at the very start, the necessary icy hush). That said, Jarvi rises capably enough to the big and brazen ‘public’ gestures of the finale, and the Chandos sound is predictably alluring in its transparent sumptuousness. In the end, though, it all boils down to conviction, the kind of extraordinary commitment to the cause that Bernstein and his New Yorkers display on their electrifying 1985 DG version; the relative dearth of those self-same qualities in Detroit is what ultimately relegates this latest account to the also-rans.'