Sunday, 21 August 2016

New Zealander Ross Harris is revealed as an impressive composer of substance and deep feeling on a World Premiere recording of his Violin Concerto and Fifth Symphony for Naxos

Ross Harris (b.1945) is one of New Zealand’s leading composers and has written more than two hundred compositions including opera, symphonic music, chamber music, klezmer and electronic music. He has been a finalist in the prestigious SOUNZ Contemporary Award more times than any other New Zealand composer and has won the award four times. He was born in Amberley, New Zealand, studied in Christchurch and Wellington and taught at the Victoria University of Wellington Music Department for over thirty years.

In 2004 he took early retirement from teaching and began working as a freelance composer. His residency with the Auckland Philharmonia (2005–2006) led to the composition of three symphonies. Harris received a Queen's Service Medal in 1985 for his opera Waituhi, the Composers Association of New Zealand (CANZ) Citation for Services to New Zealand Music in 1990 and the CANZ Trust Fund Award in 2016.. His major works include six string quartets, six symphonies, a violin concerto premiered by Anthony Marwood in 2010 and a cello concerto premiered by Li-Wei Qin in 2012.

Naxos have already recorded Harris’ Symphonies No’s 2 and 3 (8.572574) and his Symphony No. 4 coupled with the Cello Concerto (8.573044).

Now from Naxos comes Harris’ Symphony No. 5 and Violin Concerto in World Premiere recordings from the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Eckehard Stier  and Garry Walker  with violinist Ilya Gringolts and mezzo-soprano Sally-Anne Russell

Ross Harris’ Violin Concerto No. 1 (2010) was commissioned by Christopher Marshall for violinist Anthony Marwood and premiered by him with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra under Tecwyn Evans in 2010. In five parts, the solo violin opens Part 1 high in the register soon joined by a melancholic clarinet. An oboe is heard, then a bassoon as the soloist continues his playful working over of the material.  The music slowly gains in flow as the orchestra joins, finding some beautiful moments with some wonderful textures and harmonies before leading into Part 2 where the tempo increases and becomes more dramatic with some very fine incisive playing from Ilya Gringolts. The music has more relaxed moments for the orchestra with the soloist finding little moments of quixotic playfulness. The orchestra provides a terrific response to the soloist who works up much passion and fury before slowing in a quite lovely passage to lead into the next Part 3.

Here Gringolts achieves some fine textures along with the APO strings in this slow haunting section where both soloist and orchestra find much deep feeling, shaping the music beautifully and finding some exquisite layers of sound all the while hovering on the edge of atonality. In Part 4 the soloist and orchestra develop the music through moments that reflect the opening movement of the concerto, finding sudden changing moods, rhythms and tempi before working up a fast and dynamic passage pointed up by timpani. A myriad of woodwind appear in the wonderful orchestration with the music growing ever faster and dramatic before reaching a climax and going into Part 5 where the music finds more of a poise in the orchestra to which the soloist brings a slow exquisitely shaped line. A cadenza is reached where the soloist slowly and exquisitely works over the theme, finding some lovely harmonies and textures before finding a hush at the end.

This is a spectacularly fine work that deserves a place in the repertoire. It is played to perfection by Gringolts and the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Garry Walker.

Harris’ Symphony No. 5 (2013) is in seven movements and sets three poems by Hungarian born poet Panni Palasti within four purely orchestral movements. Adagio I has a slow thoughtful opening for a solo bassoon over a hushed orchestra to which other woodwind slowly join, weaving a melancholy, quite lovely theme. Again Harris’ expert orchestration is in evidence. One can’t help but feel poised on the edge of beauty and deep sorrow as the movement progresses, slowly developing through the most wonderful passages. Eventually the strings bring a greater intensity only to fall back to a deep sadness out of which the woodwind emerge bringing little moments of animation. Yet it is the brooding, intensely tragic air that prevails. A trumpet rises out of the orchestra to herald a series of sudden outbursts from the orchestra before finding a hush at the end.

The second movement, The line-up takes the text of Palasti’s poem that opens with the words ‘when the men come/to search us/to herd us/who will hide me.’ A harp is soon joined by mezzo soprano Sally-Anne Russell, the orchestra joining to add a string layer with Russell finding a brilliance over a more intense string layer.

It is the woodwind that again that bring an air of jollity, perhaps a mock jollity to Scherzo I but they are soon overridden by brass and drums in a frenzied theme. The music rises in drama through some impressive moments before a solo violin appears to bring a fast forward driving section. The music slows momentarily but the rhythmic driving music thunders forward to the sudden end.

Harp and strings gently open Candlelight to which Russell brings a lovely tone that blends beautifully as she sings ‘we sit in the dark/only the centre of the shelter is lit by a single candle’ supported by the most exquisite orchestral accompaniment. There are moments where just the harp and soloist bring a spare, haunting quality.

There is a rather fragmented passage from all sections of the orchestra as Scherzo II sparks and flickers forward. Soon a solo violin finds a dialogue with a variety of instruments before the music moves through moments of greater drama, finding a terrific mixture of emotions as the music quickly veers from slower to faster, from flowing to staccato, hurtling from one expressive idea to another.

The solo harp opens Lessons learned from my father gently joined by Sally-Anne Russell as she sings ‘I have to run/on the double/to warn him to hide/climb out of the window/before the soldiers arrive’ finding a real depth of emotion in this initially spare setting of the most striking and vivid of poems. Woodwind subtly join, a clarinet gains prominence before the orchestra joins to lead into the final movement.

Woodwind rise over the orchestra to bring a lovely texture to the affecting theme of Adagio II. Brass and woodwind weave some spellbinding passages with glimpses of atonality emerging in the strings. Woodwind continue to weave a rippling texture with suggestions of the unsettled second scherzo appearing. The music rises to a climax only to quieten as harp and woodwind, then brass weave forward. The music further quietens and slows in the strings to find a peaceful, hushed coda.

This is an impressive symphony full of depth and feeling that is given a terrific performance here by Eckehard Stier and the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra. 

Ross Harris is an impressive composer of substance and deep feeling. The recordings made in Auckland Town Hall, New Zealand are first rate and there are useful booklet notes with full English texts.

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