R. Harris Symphony 3; Schuman Symphony 3

Author: 
Michael Oliver

R. Harris Symphony 3; Schuman Symphony 3

  • Symphony No. 3
  • Symphony No. 3
  • Symphony No. 3
  • Symphony No. 3

In the notes accompanying this recording Roy Harris is quoted as saying that his Third Symphony ''happened to come along when it was needed''. What was needed in 1939 was a Great American Symphony, not only as a musical declaration of independence from Europe but as an embodiment of the mood (post-New Deal, but war looming) of the times, and Harris's document of pioneering aspiration responded to the need superbly. Its visionary nobility and audible American-ness of utterance made a tremendous impact and were hugely influential: Harris's Third became a benchmark against which later American symphonies were measured. William Schuman's especially, perhaps, since he was Harris's pupil: Koussevitzky's terse advice to him was ''Hate Harris!''. Schuman's melodic language, especially at this period (his Third Symphony was completed less than two years after the premiere of Harris's work), was too close to his teacher's for him to avoid any hint of sincere flattery; his opening theme might almost be by Harris, and the soberly expressive counterpoint to which he then subjects it is just what Harris would have done with such an idea. In most other respects, however, he effectively asserts his individuality: Harris's Third is an organic single-movement structure, Schuman's Third (effectively his First, since he has withdrawn its predecessors) has four, each with a severely classical sub-title (passacaglia, fugue, chorale and toccata); Harris's is austere and craggy in colour and texture, Schuman's is a brilliant orchestral showpiece, brimming with vivid effects: the pupil was already surpassing his master in sheer technical resource.
He certainly surpasses him in eventfulness: Harris's symphony does a few things magnificently (brooding polyphony, passionate oratory, massive energy) while Schuman's does many with fluent efficiency. And perhaps it is this that gives his symphony, for all its striking inventiveness, an occasional air of glossy facility. Harris's work has an air of painfully achieved, almost awkward economy and directness, and the result is so right that you cannot imagine it otherwise (you do not, for example, really think of it as having been 'orchestrated'). There is nothing awkward about Schuman's technique: every idea is finely dramatized, every climax cleverly built, but his hushed string chorales, his mannered use of pealing brass and the side-drum rim-shots with which he raises the audience to its feet at the end of the finale have more of 'presentation' than of argument to them.
Still, his symphony makes a splendid vehicle for spectacular orchestral virtuosity, and you are unlikely to hear it played more dazzlingly than in this performance: the players audibly enjoy themselves immensely. So does Bernstein, who contributes some passionate stifled cries to the finale. But he knows very well that the Harris symphony is no showpiece: it, too, is marvellously played, but with no histrionics to mar its noble gravity, and although the sound has a satisfying richness there is no fat to it. The performance of the Harris Third, in fact, is very similar to Bernstein's 1966 reading on CBS (61681, 6/76) but the newcomer is far better recorded; one of the most natural-sounding live recordings I have heard.'

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