Roy Harris' symphonies are played much less than they once were, and the piano pieces on this album go all but unheard on recitals. It may be time for a revival of Harris' music in general, for he had a distinctive style that avoided populism, Romantic models, and European systematizing. Furthermore, unlike Copland, he did not change his style to catch the prevailing winds. This fine disc could make a good place to start with his music, for despite the small scale of the pieces (unlike the symphonies) they fuse the diverse elements of his style equally fully. This is the appeal of Harris' music: there are spacious chords that evoke the American landscape (quite similar in impulse to the Copland "Western" sonority); elements of medieval and Renaissance music absorbed from Debussy and Satie via his teacher, Nadia Boulanger; cluster-like and polytonal experiments; jazz and blues; and an engagement with folk music that's quite unlike Copland's. In the two sets of American ballads Harris deploys his quite dissonant harmonic language to interpret the tune, somewhat in the manner of an art song accompaniment, rather than striving for a naïve simplicity. Sample the setting of Streets of Laredo (track 9) and then move on to the remarkable Piano Sonata, Op. 1, of 1928, which puts all of these elements together save the folk influence despite the fact that it's less than 12 minutes long and is divided into four distinct sections. It's a remarkably compact and cohesive piece. As pianist Geoffrey Burleson puts it in his notes (in English only), much of the music here can put one in mind of an American version of Hindemith and Bartók, even though Harris' style was formed independently of those composers. The four miniatures of the Little Suite (1938) are the equal of those in Bartók's Mikrokosmos. The program concludes with several world premieres of odd pages from Harris' piano output; they're not on a level with the rest of the music, but the entire disc is something of an adventure in rediscovery. Burleson plays everything cleanly and enthusiastically. Recommended for any fan of American music.
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AllMusic Review by James Manheim
|Piano Sonata, Op. 1|
|American Ballads, Set 1|
|American Ballads, Set 2|