Harbison: String Trio; Four Songs of Solitude; Songs America Loves to Sing CD review – refreshingly open-minded Camerata Pacifica (Harmonia Mundi) 4 out of 5

By: Andrew Clements

The Guardian, September 25 2014


Born in 1938, John Harbison could be taken as the paradigm of the generation of US composers who learned their trade in the 50s and early 60s, absorbing ideas from a huge range of musical sources and forging a convincing personal style out of them. Harbison has said that his influences range from Bach to Birtwistle via Stravinsky and Schoenberg, with jazz and popular songs in the mix, too. It’s an open-minded, refreshingly undogmatic approach, that can produce music as different as the works that bookend this disc – the String Trio, completed last year and given its first public performance just last week, and Songs America Loves to Sing, from 2004.

The great string trios may be counted on the fingers of one hand, and Harbison’s model was the greatest of them all, Mozart’s Divertimento in E flat, K563. Like that work, Harbison’s half-hour Trio is in six movements, but their thematic material is derived from musical spellings of Lionel Messi’s name (he is, says Harbison, the “Mozart of soccer”), and the way that the three instruments relate to each other in an almost theatrical way, with the viola finally coming out on top, has more than a hint of the instrumental roleplay that is such a feature of Elliott Carter’s string quartets. Harbison’s string writing is generally less dense and confrontational than Carter’s, though, and as played by the three members of Camerata Pacifica for whom it was written, his Trio is wonderfully elegant and clear, and seems a major addition to the string trio repertory.

Neither the solo-violin Four Songs of Solitude nor Songs America Loves to Sing have the weight and seriousness of the Trio, but both show how wide-ranging and inclusive Harbison’s music can be. The 10 miniatures in Songs America Loves to Sing are nostalgic versions of a whole spectrum of numbers from Amazing Grace to St Louis Blues, Careless Love to We Shall Overcome, but arranged for the bright, brittle Pierrot Lunaire lineup of flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano; it’s a curious melding of cultures, totally typical of Harbison.