Harbach Vol. 15: Orchestral Music VI

Record Label: MSR Classics
Release Date: February 2022

The Sound The Stars Make
Visions of Hildegard
Mischances of Life
Eclipsis Lunae
Spaindango – A Tango Caprice

London Philharmonic Orchestra
David Angus, conductor


“If the contents of some of this disc (Music of Barbara Harbach, Vol. 15 – Orchestral Music VI) seem familiar, that’s not entirely surprising: MSR 1695 (reviewed by myself and several other critics in Fanfare 45:2) presents chamber versions of Visions of Hildegard and The Sound The Stars Make Rushing Through The Sky. We do have several other different pieces, though; instead of Cuatro Danzas and Civil Civility, the disc is filled with Mischances of LifeEclipsis Lunae, and Spaindango.

Hearing Visions of Hildegard in full orchestral garb is another experience again from the violin and piano version; the music seems to explode in depth and color. David Argus gets fine, tender performances from the London Philharmonic; we hear dance echoes here in both the opening “O vis eternitatis,” as well as in the central “O nobilissima viriditas.” It is wonderful that the original texts are reproduced in the booklet, even though this is a purely orchestral work; reading Hildegard’s words really helps one tap into the creative processes at work here. It’s interesting, too, that Harbach can retain her natural mode of expression while remaining true to the ancient messages and feel of Hildegard’s output. Perhaps the biggest surprise in hearing the orchestral version is the third and final movement, “O ignee Spiritus,” which sounds positively filmic in its dimensions, a huge vista of sound augmented by expansive woodwind melodies. While the violin and piano version makes for an emphatic opening, it is a world away from this; and yet the scoring is so expert, and so beautiful, it seems impossible to imagine the orchestral version any other way. Mike Hatch’s recording is brilliant: Detail is perfectly captured, and yet one feels the space of London’s Henry Wood Hall as well.

The orchestral piece Mischances of Life, like Visions of Hildegard, dates from 2018. This is effectively a beautiful orchestral suite extracted from Harbach’s opera O Pioneers! (which I, for one, would love to see). Again, quotations from the text illuminate the movements beyond their titles: “In the Cold, In the Deep, In the Dark”; “Away, Away, O Monstrous Choice”; and so on. The gracefulness of the playing from the solo woodwind and brass instruments in the third movement, “Misfortune’s Folly,” is most impressive and appealing; the flighty scoring of “Dreams through the Trees” sets up a positively magical, fantastical atmosphere. Harbach is something of a conjurer herself, creating the perfect atmosphere every time.

An orchestral suite in three movements, also written in 2018, The Sound The Stars Make Rushing Through The Sky is inspired by a princess of the Ojibwe people, whose name translates as the work’s title (the version on the previous disc dates from the previous year). On that earlier disc, there were vocals; here, the orchestra is left to “sing,” and indeed one can often imagine the melodies sung. There is a real power to this version, though: Although Harbach’s scoring is elective, one is ever aware that a tutti is only a few strokes of the pen away. Although identifiably Harbach, this is another sound world, somehow deeper and more contemplative, even when the music moves along quite nicely. The LPO is magnificent in the tricky second movement, “Luna and Stella,” with its overlapping phrases and tripping-along rhythms, creating a beautifully outdoorsy feel. The mood shifts significantly for “Trail of Tears” (referring to the enforced relocation of the Cherokee Nation; in Cherokee, the event is referred to as “The Trail Where They Cried,” hence the title), more oppressive, carrying the weight of history.

Even darker is Eclipsis Lunae (2017), a piece about the superstitions surrounding lunar eclipses, and the peoples’ attempts to prevent the loss of light so that the sun might reappear. Harbach cleverly includes a reference to the song How High the Moon (made famous by the likes of Charlie Parker and Ella Fitzgerald), unmissable here via the inclusion of a drum kit) as, for the final section, rejoicing reigns for the return of the light; there is some terrific brass playing in this section, also. Finally, there comes a “Tango Caprice,” Spaindango (2018), a piece originally for harpsichord and which, in the composer’s own words, “featured antique flourishes in dialogue with 20th-century madness.” It is clever, witty, and delightful, and the references to early music come to the fore at one point most effectively. Instead of alternating two sections that could be labelled “A” and “B,” Harbach alternates “A” (and its variants) with “Tango” through a sequence of five variations. The piece scuds its way through a variety of moods, none intended to pull us in any way downwards; this is a terrific end to a terrific disc. It sounds like the LPO had fun aplenty, too.

This is a fascinating, varied disc, with the London Philharmonic in top form and caught in a fabulous recording. This is volume six of Harbach’s orchestral music series on MSR; I’m sure there will be more, and for that we should be ever grateful.”

Colin Clarke