Premiered by Sergey Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Roy Harris' Third Symphony is his only work that remains a staple in the concert hall today. In total, though, the Oklahoman composer wrote 13 orchestral symphonies. Largely unnumbered and scored for a variety of different forces, most are completely unknown or at least unfamiliar to listeners today. This marks the first installment of a new Naxos symphony cycle of those 13 works.
The series opener features Marin Alsop conducting both Harris' Third and Fourth symphonies. Alsop, one of the most talented female conductors to emerge in recent memory, has now replaced former music director Yuri Temirkanov at the Baltimore Symphony. Her former teacher, Leonard Bernstein, performed the Third Symphony often, preserving his powerful interpretations of this work with two sound recordings from 1965 and 1981 (the earlier one being superior in every way apart from sound quality). Both recordings were made with the New York Philharmonic.
The Colorado Symphony, though, is not the New York Philharmonic. This music is difficult, and unfortunately this recording reminds us of that fact. The intonation is weak at the opening of the melancholy string passages, high in the upper registers. In addition, there are frequent ensemble problems throughout some of Harris' more driving, rhythmic sections. Alsop does have good ideas, though: they can be heard in some of the exposed woodwind passages where she gives a three-dimensional sweep to Harris' lyrical melodies. Unfortunately, while a decent recording, the overall quality of the Third is not on par with most other accounts on disc.
It is Harris' 40-minute "Folk Song Symphony" (as the Fourth is subtitled) that makes up the bulk of the disc, though. As its title suggests, the work is divided into seven movements, each (rather freely) based on folk melodies from various sources. Though it was composed in the year following the Third (1939), it has a more wholesome, tender approach with less of the anguished feel of its predecessor. The work is scored for chorus and orchestra, and this recording fares much better than the Third: Alsop's sensitivity is at times breathtaking, allowing her to sketch some beautiful landscapes with her Rocky Mountain forces.
The sound quality is good, although it seems a touch grainier than some other Naxos features. Unless you're looking for a recording of the Fourth, don't waste your time: head for Bernstein's 1965 recording of the Third instead.