Harbach Vol. 10: Chamber Music V
Soprano, Violin, Piano & Chamber Orchestra
ST. LOUIS CHAMBER ORCHESTRA
Marlissa Hudson and Stella Markou, soprano
John McGrosso and Julia Sakharova, violin
Alla Voskoboynikova, piano
“[Nocturne Noir is] short but brilliant tour-de-force…[The Terezin Children’s Songs are] sung exquisitely by Stella Markou… ”
Laurence Vittes, Gramophone [November 2016]
“I really like [Harbach’s] music a great deal, so I am always pleasantly surprised when I open the latest parcel from Fanfare Central to discover a new CD of her work… the beauty of [the Terezin] settings is striking from the very first notes of the opening song, “Birdsong.” It features a lovely lyrical melody sung by the soprano, with a counter melody by the violin weaving around it in canonic fashion. These lines are accompanied in the piano by some of the most gorgeous harmonies imaginable… This cycle, beautifully sung by soprano Stella Markou, worthily stands in the company of the great cycles by Samuel Barber and Ned Rorem. They’re really that good, and this is my favorite work on the recital… [The Nocturne noir] produces a powerful impression… I can and do recommend this work and the others on this disc with considerable enthusiasm.”
David DeBoor Canfield, Fanfare [November/December 2016]
“[The Birth, Life, and Death of Christ] is quiet, understated music whose slow pacing (matching that of the film), invites contemplation… Harbach is an accomplished pianist as well as a composer. Her Nocturne Noir packs a lot of technical challenges into a five-minute work. Her accessible, tonal-based style keeps the music from just being a jumble of notes, but rather provides an engaging listen… [In the two song cycles] Harbach successfully captures the mood of these writings… This is honest music-making.”
Ralph Graves, Finding Beauty [August 2016]
“This cycle, beautifully sung by soprano Stella Markou, worthily stands in the company of the great cycles by Samuel Barber and Ned Rorem. They’re really that good, and this is my favorite work on the recital.”
Composer and organist/harpsichordist Barbara Harbach is nothing if not prolific, as this is volume five of her chamber music, and I have also reviewed a disc of her orchestral music. Readers desiring more information about her may wish to refer to the interview that I did with her in 38:1. I really like her music a great deal, so I am always pleasantly surprised when I open the latest parcel from Fanfare Central to discover a new CD of her work. The present CD contains four chamber works for various groups of instruments (and in two works, they include the addition of a soprano to the ensemble).
The opening Terezin Children’s Songs sets texts by the children who were confined to the Nazi “showcase” concentration camp, more often referred to by its German name, Theresienstadt. The “Potemkin Village” had an unusually high percentage of composers, writers, and other artistic prisoners who were allowed a degree of freedom to practice their art—until, of course, these unfortunate Jews were eventually shipped off to the gas chambers in Auschwitz. Among the prisoners of Theresienstadt who eventually lost their lives were some 15,000 children, some of whose art and poetry was smuggled out of the camp. The depictions of the brutal life of the camp as seen through the eyes of a child are moving in the extreme, and the beauty of these settings is striking from the very first notes of the opening song, “Birdsong.” It features a lovely lyrical melody sung by the soprano, with a counter melody by the violin weaving around it in canonic fashion. These lines are accompanied in the piano by some of the most gorgeous harmonies imaginable.
Despite the circumstances attending the writing of this poem by the anonymous child, there is a spirit of optimism in the poem (“You’ll know how wonderful it is to be alive”) that Harbach set exquisitely in the music. The second song, “Forgotten,” foregoes the use of the piano it its first stanza, giving a particularly wistful quality to the setting of this text about love and friendship. “On a Sunny Evening” seems a bit more reserved in its rhythmic structure and harmonies; here, the subject is nature, but it closes with the lines, “If in barbed wire, things can bloom, Why couldn’t I? I will not die!” Unlike those of the first three songs, the authors of the final two are known. These include “The Butterfly” by Pavel Friedman and “Do not stand at my grave and weep” by Mary Elizabeth Frye. The shift in style in the final two or three songs from the lighter and more upbeat opening ones, both in the texts and Harbach’s music, is quite noticeable. Nevertheless, their sadness yields a luminescent beauty that will deeply move the listener. This cycle, beautifully sung by soprano Stella Markou, worthily stands in the company of the great cycles by Samuel Barber and Ned Rorem. They’re really that good, and this is my favorite work on the recital.
The Nocturne noir sets quite a different mood, full of drama and passion. From the title alone, I was expecting something, well, more nocturnal (i.e., peaceful and sleep-inducing). It turns out (I having finally read the booklet notes) that the piece was inspired by a dream, apparently one that included some moments of anxiety. Perhaps the most unexpected thing I heard was a fugue utilizing a jig-like motive. In any case, the piece produces a powerful impression.
The text of the Dorothy Parker Love Songs demonstrates the unerring eye of this American poet for the foibles of urban existence. The musical style of this cycle is similar to that of the Terezin Songs,although it is more up-tempo and more metrically regular throughout. Harbach especially well expresses in her music the conflicted feelings evident in the final poem of the triad, “Love Song,” a whimsical text that begins, “My own dear love, he is strong and bold,” and ends with “And I wish somebody’d shoot him,” the latter line reinforced with a vocal swoop to the soprano’s high C. Marlissa Hudson’s soprano voice is several degrees weightier than that of Stella Markou, but seems perfectly suited to the tension in Parker’s texts.
The major work on this disc is the closing one, The Birth, Life and Death of Christ. It is major both in terms of duration (more than a half hour in length), and the forces employed, a 13-member chamber orchestra. The title comes from the 1906 French film, La naissance, la vie et la mort du Christ, the most important work of the first woman filmmaker, Alice Guy, and one of the longest films that had been produced up until that time. The film is set in 25 scenes, and Harbach has written music to accompany each episode of this silent film. Her score was premiered in a showing of the film under the auspices of the St. Louis International Film Festival in 2014. Not surprisingly, there is a good bit of variety in the moods between one section and another to be found here. While this imaginative modal music is good enough to stand on its own, I would very much like to hear it in conjunction with the film for which it was written. I think its impact would be even greater in that context. Nevertheless, I can and do recommend this work and the others on this disc with considerable enthusiasm.
David DeBoor Canfield Fanfare Magazine [Nov/Dec 2016]
This fifth volume of Barbara Harbach’s chamber music begins with a cycle from Terezín and ends with a silent film score on the life of Christ. These, a short but brilliant pianistic tour de force called Nocturne noir and a second cycle on bittersweet poems by Dorothy Parker constitute a rewarding survey of Harbach’s recent work.
Harbach responds in her Terezí Children’s Songs with her most involving music, sung exquisitely by Stella Markou. Four of the songs were written to children’s poetry from the concentration camp, and a fifth to Mary Elizabeth Frye’s ‘Do not stand at my grave and weep’, inspired in 1932 by the story of a young Jewish girl unable to visit her dying mother in Germany. Sung exquisitely by Markou, the music is closely, delicately aligned to the five very different poetic voices, particularly attuned to small, special moments like the
flutter of doom in Pavel Friedman’s ‘The Butterfly’.
In Harbach’s Dorothy Parker Love Songs, Marlissa Hudson relishes the full impact of these small sagas of love and loss spiked by spiteful kicks at the end; in the case of ‘Love Song’, with its last line ‘And I wish somebody’d shoot him’, Hudson’s relish is particularly grim.
Harbach’s chamber orchestra score for The Birth, Life and Death of Christ, French film-maker Alice Guy-Blaché’s 1906 classic (available for ‘synching’ on YouTube), has a meandering, fin de siècle feel about it, with imaginative touches throughout, such as the xylophone at the end of the ‘Climbing
Laurence Vittes, Gramophone [November 2016]