Kirk Trevor

Barbara Harbach: Chamber Music, Vol. 1

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Barbara Harbach: Chamber Music, Vol. 1 Review

by Mike D. Brownell

Barbara Harbach has distinguished herself as one of the preeminent American composers of any generation. Her music is distinctly American, with clever folk elements that hint at Copland but are all uniquely her own. MSR Classics is in the process of releasing Harbach's music on seven discs. This current disc, Vol. 2, is the first of three devoted entirely to Harbach's rather extensive chamber music contributions. Vol. 2 alone is a testament to Harbach's versatility in this environment; the works on this album are scored for an impressive assortment of instruments, from the traditional string quartet and brass and woodwind quintets to larger ensembles featuring both strings, winds, and brass. Despite Harbach's strengths as a composer, however, this CD is far from a "must-have" item. The various configurations of the Ensemble Istropolis and the Moyzes String Quartet prove to be a poor match for Harbach's music. For starters, there's very little character present in the playing and a true "American music" idiomatic sound is never achieved. From a more technical standpoint, intonation is a disaster. The works for only one family of instruments -- brass, winds, or strings -- are more acceptably performed, but as soon as instruments are mixed, everything quickly falls apart. Regrettably, the low quality of playing completely overshadows what listeners should be focusing on -- Harbach's music. Hopefully for her, other ensembles will take up her music and offer listeners a more pleasing alternative to this recording.

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