John Harbison’s music is almost always engaging on an intellectual level—imaginative, ingeniously inventive, and distinctively orchestrated—but in spite of its essentially lyrical impulse, it can have a cold brilliance that doesn’t leap out to touch the emotions. The three works recorded here, written in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, appeal as much to the senses as to the intellect, making this one of the most attractive releases of the composer’s music. It doesn’t hurt that the performances by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, led by Gil Rose, and by the five vocal soloists are stellar, but Harbison has always been among the most successful contemporary composers in academia at attracting top-notch performers.
Full Moon in March, a chamber opera based on a verse play by William Butler Yeats, receives its first recording here, based on a 2003 production by the orchestra and Opera Boston. While Yeats’ play contains some lyrically expressive poetry, its plot is opaque, nasty, and gratuitously cruel, but Harbison is certainly not the first composer to make a successful opera out of an unpromising libretto.
He succeeds not by developing believable, appealing characters, but because his music, with its convoluted (but still nicely singable) vocal lines, weirdly spiky ostinatos, and eccentric sonorities (that include a prepared piano), creates a totally engrossing atmosphere of primitive hieratic mystery. The strange world of a capriciously vindictive Queen and her Shepherd-Suitor doesn’t make much sense, but Harbison captures the exotic strangeness so persuasively the listener is inexorably pulled into it.
While the recording of Mirabai Songs with Dawn Upshaw and David Zinman leading the Orchestra of St. Luke’s may be more beautiful as a purely aural experience, Janna Baty delivers an exceptionally memorable performance, with an earthy vocal power and an emotional depth, ranging from indignant fury to abject loneliness, that ring true with the complex character of the sixteenth century Indian mystic and poet. This Mirabai is clearly a force to be reckoned with; as Baty portrays her, it’s easy to believe that she would have been able to get away with flouting the most sacred social conventions of her time and survive to write about it. The disc concludes with Harbison’s Exequien for Calvin Simmons, an exquisitely delicate and moving instrumental tribute to the promising young conductor who died in his early thirties. The sound is beautifully detailed, realistic, and immediate.