BBC Music Magazine Review January 2017
Violin Concerto, Symphony No.5
This disc showcases two arresting works by New Zealand-based composer Ross Harris (b1945). Composed in 2010 and teetering between the tonal and atonal, Harris’s Violin Concerto No. 1 is striking in its capacity to shift between light and shade. The rhapsodic solo line (performed with grace and fire by Ilya Gringolts) sings almost constantly, twisting and diving across the work’s five movements which span the elegiac, the sardonic and the triumphant. The Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra wind section gives an immaculate performance of Harris’s delicate, quasi-extemporised chamber textures.
Harris’s Violin Concerto is paired with the composer’s Fifth Symphony: premiered in 2014, it is a deftly-constructed exploration of the agonies of war The work is underpinned by settings of three stark, moving poems by contemporary Hungarian poet Panni Palasti, recalling the violent siege of Budapest in 1944. Framed by two austere but fiercely beautiful adagio movements and a spiky pair of scherzos, the three sung movements are themselves mystical and restrained, with Sally-Anne Russell’s rich mezzo-soprano lending them a ghostly power.
General recoding levels feel a touch muted to do full justice to Harris’s complex musical textures, but the performances are excellent and the disc offers listeners a welcome encounter with this fine composer’s work.
Gramophone Magazine. Review date AW2014
R HARRIS Symphony No 4. Cello Concerto
Author: Andrew Achenbach
Concerto for Cello and Orchestra
Symphony No 4, “To the Memory of Mahinarangi Tocker”
New Zealander Ross Harris (b1945) studied with Douglas Lilburn and taught at the Victoria University of Wellington. Since 2004 he has successfully pursued a freelance career, nurturing a particularly strong alliance with the Auckland Philharmonia, which has given the premieres of all five of his symphonies to date. The Fourth dates from 2011 and is dedicated to the memory of Mahinrangi Tocker (1955-2008), the Maori/Jewish composer, poet and songwriter. She and Harris were close friends and each of the symphony’s five movements subtly incorporates one of her songs: sorrowful reminiscence and local colour combine to particularly potent effect in the
concluding lament (echoes here of late Mahler and Berg, too). The work as a whole plays for just under half an hour, during the course of which the principal viola is assigned and increasingly important role. Harris evidently possesses a richly stocked imagination and his deeply felt, rewardingly meaty portrait-in-sound is as exuberantly inventive as it is meticulously crafted. It’s a description which also holds true for the Cello Concerto that Harris competed that same year for the CHinese virtuoso Li-Wei Qin. This is a 24-minute, single-movement canvas
of no little cumulative power, satisfyingly sinewy logic and immaculately laid out for the medium; indeed, it’s a work that grows in my estimation every time I return to it.
Both performances are admirable. Garry Walker and Brett Dean secure exemplary results from the Auckland orchestra, and Li-Wei Qin lends hugely eloquent advocacy to the concerto. Most truthful sound and useful presentation, too. An enterprising pairing that can be welcomed with open arms.
Cello Concerto/ Symphony 4
Weekend Herald June 28, 2014
Review by William Dart.
Verdict: “Naxos celebrates a very special Kiwi partnership of orchestra and composer.
Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra’s second collection of the orchestral music of Ross Harris is a major contribution to the ever-growing storehouse of our country’s classical music.
This CD, beautifully produced by Wayne Laird and expertly engineered by Adrian Hollay, presents two works, the Cello Concerto and Symphony No 4. For some this disk will be a much-appreciated souvenir of two concert hall triumphs, for others, it offers a glimpse of the extraordinary partnership between a fine composer and a committed orchestra.
The Concerto is cast in a single movement of just under 25 minutes. Originally described by Harris as an ascension from darkness to light, its journey could not have been undertaken by a more eloquent protagonist than Australian cellist Li-Wei Qin. This recording confirms the first-night impressions of an inspired soloist; Li-Wei draws such vibrant pathos for the lyrical passages and yet astonishes with his ferocity when playing the virtuoso card. The orchestra is in top form, responding with ease and finesse to an intricate score.
With hindsight and the luxury of being able to revisit the performance, I am even more impressed by the terrier-like persistence of Scottish conductor Garry Walker pursuing the symphonic arguments set before him.
The Symphony No 4, conducted by Australian fellow-composer Brett Dean in 2012, is dedicated to the memory of Harris’ friend and collaborator, song writer Mahinarangi Tocker. A rich and sometimes dark-hued cloak has been laid out in these pages, revealing a remarkable skill in bringing together disparate musical elements. The various links with Tocker are explained in the programme note, although those familiar with her music will doubly appreciate hearing her song My Love Be Strong unleashing the first movement’s seascape. Towards the end of the symphony, the anger that breaks out during the fourth movement eventually finds peace and acceptance in the finale. Principal viola Robert Ashworth, who acquits himself magnificently with Harris’ musical demands, closes the piece, recalling Tocker’s Forever. The songwriter talks here of her grave being blossomed with stories of old, spoken to song, a heritage for which Ross Harris has created a new and resonant kate.
****1/2 (Four 1/2 Stars)
Cello Concerto/ Symphony 4 (To the Memory of Mahinarangi Tocker)
Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Garry Walker/ Brett Dean with Li-Wei Qin (Cello)
Ross Harris has been particularly busy since his retirement from the New Zealand School of Music in 2003, with a string of works resonating in the memory. Most recently we heard his haunting collaboration with Vincent O’Sullivan Requiem for the Fallen at at the 2014 International Festival, but other recent works have made a real impression. The Violin Concerto was memorable when experienced with Anthony Marwood in 2010, and if the Cello Concerto on this new disc doesn’t quite make the same impression, it remains a fine work. Inspired by the playing of Li-Wei Qin, it is his marvelous playing that provides the real impact.
The Symphony No 4 is in five movements each briefly quoting briefly from a song by Mahinarangi Tocker, with the viola of Robert Ashworth gradually becoming more and more prominent. This is a fine,deeply felt work, and with both works on the disc being most effectively played and well recorded, this modestly priced disc should be in all collections.
Symphonies 2 & 3 (Naxos)
New Zealand Herald March 17th 2012
Review by William Dart
Verdict: “Out of the concert hall and into the world with two superb Kiwi Symphonies”
It was a thrill and a privilege to be in the audience at the premieres of Ross Harris’ four symphonies. Now a new Naxos recording of Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra playing No 2 and No 3 takes two of his award winning scores out of the concert hall and into the world.
No2 is, in fact, a symphonic song-cycle, built around Vincent O’Sullivan’s poetic narrative of a World War 1 soldier executed for desertion and the effect it has on the woman left behind. It is a story in which the composer found a heroism and a stand for emotional certainty and freedom.
Soprano Madeleine Pierard is magnificent, subtly moving between the two characters. Her matter-of-fact introduction chills; the anguish conveyed in the slow movement is heartrending. One senses the pride of the APO players in every phrase which Marko Letonja, conducting this 2010 revival, shapes so tellingly in a particularly responsive Wayne Laird production. Symphony No 3 comes in its Town Hall premiere, a live broadcast overseen with exemplary professionalism by Radio New Zealand’s Tim Dodd. For all its complexity, this 45-minute work should not daunt those with a sense of adventure. Within seconds of the opening, we float in a Straussian chamber music world with concertmaster Dimitri Atanassov inviting his woodwind colleagues to join his swooning serenade. Harris admits to the influence of Jewish klezmer music (complete with accordion) as well as the paintings of Chagall, which are explored further in the more recent song-cycle The Floating Bride, The Crimson Village. Yet his thematic generosity means there is a wealth of other music – bittersweet waltzes, in particular – that infuse these 127 pages, with a slow movement of extraordinary emotional impact. Here, as one did with Peter Maxwell Davies’ Naxos Quartet recordings a few years back, there is a real joy in coming to grips with genuinely symphonic dialogue and argument, which Letonja inspires from his players. One hopes plans are afoot for a follow-up CD, giving us the composer’s first and fourth symphonies, and perhaps the new Cello Concerto as a bonus.