For me, the two works on this collection of Barbara Harbach’s chamber music I most enjoyed were the longest and the shortest. The longest was “The Birth, Life, and Death of Christ” for chamber orchestra. It was written as a musical accompaniment to Alice Guy’s 1906 silent film of the same name.
The movie is a series of tableaux and the music follows the same structure, presenting a series of short, interrelated movements. This is quiet, understated music whose slow pacing (matching that of the film), invites contemplation.
Harbach is an accomplished pianist as well as a composer. Her “Nocturne Noir” packs a lot of technical challenges into a five-minute work. Her accessible, tonal-based style keeps the music from just being a jumble of notes, but rather provides an engaging listen.
Also included are two song cycles for soprano, violin, and piano. “Terezin Children’s Songs” sets a selection of poems and letters of the youngest concentration camp victims. The music seems superficially simple with a dark undercurrent of sadness that gives the words their emotional power.
The second cycle is “Dorothy Parker Love Songs.” Parker’s acerbic wit drips from every line — like this one: “My one dear love, he is all my heart — and I wish somebody’d shoot him.” Harbach successfully captures the mood of these writings. While the soprano sometimes sounds sentimental, the violin seems to be making mordant (if wordless) commentary throughout to remind us how Parker really feels about all this.
This is MSR Classics tenth volume of Barbara Harbach’s music, and it holds up well in comparison to the others I’ve heard. This is honest music-making.
The Music of Barbara Harbach, Volume 10: Chamber Music V
Stella Markou, Marlissa Hudson, soprano; Julia Sakharova, John McGrosso, violin; Alla Voskoboynikova, piano; St. Louis Chamber Orchestra; James Richards, conductor
MSR Classics MS 1544