Harbach Vol. 8: Chamber Music IV

Record Label: MSR Classics
Release Date: June 2013

Strings, Winds, Brass, Piano & Soprano

James Richards, conductor
Marlissa Hudson, soprano
John McGrosso, violin
Alla Voskoboynikova, piano


“…While listening to [Harbach] I am often enthralled… [Phantom of the Dreams’ Origin is] fascinating music, and again, one hardly wants to leave it while it is playing. [The Sounds of St. Louis is] well-played by the St. Louis Low Brass Collective, all members of the wonderful St. Louis Symphony… the strongest piece here, the short song cycle Harriet’s Story for soprano, piano, and violin, is quite the stunner, with soprano Marlissa Hudson delivering a splendid performance. The music is affecting and lyrical, passionate and versatile… Harbach is well worth hearing… recorded with great consistency and presence.”
Steven Ritter, Audiophile Audition [January 2014]

“Harbach’s music astonished me for its heavy reliance on the lyric and the beautifully (and cogently) framed melodic line. I could listen to her music for
American Record Guide

“Harbach has distinguished herself as one of the preeminent American composers of any generation.”
All Music Guide

“Nothing short of brilliant”
Musical America

Three pieces on this disc are from 2011. The style is remarkably similar, especially in the chamber ensemble pieces, and they all remind me of Stravinsky in his more pastoral and calmer moments. Incantata is inspired by a Paul Muldoon poem of the same title, and the music seeks to reflect the emotions found therein in movements “Perplexities”, “Nocturnes”, Ireland Remembered”, “Bitter-sweet”, and “Coda”. I enjoyed it a lot. When the last work on this disc, Phantom of the Dreams’ Origin appears, based on Nikos Stabakis’s translation of the Embirikos Blast Furnace (1935), I was expecting something far dreamier—as this is what the composer was looking for at the time—than what I got. Perhaps it’s the percussive nature of this score, complete with glockenspiel, castanets, triangle, bell tree, crotales, timpani, and suspended cymbals that makes Harbach’s notion of dreaminess different than mine—and that is certainly a valid comment—which throws me off. Anyway, it is still fascinating music, and again, one hardly wants to leave it while it is playing.

The Sounds of St. Louis incorporates a series of American folk songs with Harbach’s own considerable skill in fugal writing for a low brass ensemble. The results are not as folksy as you would think, being dominated by the bluesy feel of W.C. Handy’s own St. Louis Blues, with a pseudo-rock beat.

…the short song cycle Harriet’s Story for soprano, piano, and violin, is quite the stunner, with soprano Marlissa Hudson delivering a splendid performance. The lyrics by the composer are put in the voice of Harriet Scott (of Dred Scott fame) while the third movement uses the genuine texts of Harriet Tubman, the former slave and African-American abolitionist, humanitarian, and Union spy during the American Civil War. The music is affecting and lyrical, passionate and versatile, making me wonder if Harbach shouldn’t spend more time than she has in this genre—she certainly seems to have an innate talent for it.

Harbach is well worth hearing…I sincerely doubt if anyone will be disappointed with what they find on this disc, recorded with great consistency and presence.
Steven Ritter, Audiophile Audition [2014]

For years Barbara Harbach (b. 1946) was best known as an intrepid harpsichordist and organist, specializing in contemporary music, especially that of women composers. Among the most important of these activities was an excellent series of albums for the now defunct Gasparo label devoted to contemporary harpsichord repertoire. (Two of the best pieces, by Daniel Pinkham and Arnold Rosner, were rereleased on MSR this past year.) Harbach’s busy and vital musical life also included the founding of a publishing company (Vivace Press), a record label (Hester Park), and a journal on women and the arts (Women of Note Quarterly). After moving to St. Louis in 2004, Harbach began to focus a significantly greater portion of her efforts on composition. Though she had composed a variety of works previously, she credits the arts community of St. Louis with being much more interested in her music than had been the case in previous places she’d lived. The result of the last decade has thus been a large number of chamber and orchestral pieces, joining the keyboard and choral pieces that had comprised the bulk of her catalog prior to 2004. She has also written five musicals and an opera. Feature articles (and generally quite positive reviews) on her have appeared in this magazine in 33:3 and 35:6.

MSR Classics is releasing an ongoing series of CDs devoted to her works, of which this disc is both the eighth volume in the complete series and “Chamber Music, Vol. 4.” This release contains four pieces from 2011–12: two works for large chamber ensemble, a song cycle about Harriet Scott (wife of Dred Scott) for soprano, violin, and piano, and a very bluesy suite about St. Louis for low brass ensemble with percussion. Harbach’s musical style is firmly tonal and lyrical, with a distinctly American flavor and a lot of folk influence. The vast majority of her pieces are either programmatic or poetic in inspiration. Except for the times when it becomes more overtly pop (such as her musicals) or jazz influenced, her music is similar in style and concept to that of Rick Sowash, and the many fans of Sowash’s popular recordings would likewise enjoy Harbach’s work. Performances by many St. Louis-area musicians are all strong.
Carson Cooman, Fanfare Magazine [2014]