American Record Guide Reviews John Harbison: Ulysses

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American Record Guide
Allen Gimbel
August 1, 2008

John Harbison's ballet Ulysses (1984, rev. 2003) was inspired by the final scenes from Monteverdi's Ritorno d'Ulisse, where the hero strings his bow and goes on to win back both his kingdom and his wife. The ballet is in two large parts, 'Ulysses' Raft', and 'Ulysses' Bow', the latter having been previously recorded by the Pittsburgh Symphony on Nonesuch. This is the first recording of the complete ballet, which (incredibly) still awaits staging.

Harbison's choice of subject matter has its inevitable roots in Stravinskian neoclassicism, as does the music's general style. The libretto moves through the various stops on the hero's famous Odyssey. Harbison's music effectively captures each episode with vivid detail and unfailing imagination. The composer's freely expanded tonality supports a web of referential motives worthy of Wagnerian opera, but the general feel is middle-period Stravinsky, and if you enjoy that music you will embrace this deliciously expanded American update.

The score is filled with memorable "high-lights". All of the famous characters met on the voyage are colorfully represented in Act 1, from the monster Polyphemus (portrayed by tuba) through the magical Circe and Sirens (both scored with Ondes Martenot). There is ample lyricism (Agamemnon's homecoming is particularly moving), lively tone painting (the release of Aeolus is a lovely scherzo), and elegant dance music (Nausicaa's waltz, a fine pas de deux with Calypso). In Act 2, the disguising of Ulysses (English horn) as a beggar (oboe) is clever orchestration. The suitors' Tarantella and the climactic bowstringing episode are suitably intense and dramatic. The culminating union of Ulysses and Penelope is poignant and arrestingly beautiful.

The Boston Modern Orchestra Project is currently one of the world's greatest orchestras, recorded here with stunning detail and sensuous sheen. Gil Rose has prepared Harbison's engrossing score meticulously. There is also some exceptional solo playing, from the aforementioned tuba to the exquisite English horn solo representing the exhausted Ulysses in Act 2, and a fine trumpet soloist representing the bow leading to the climactic scene. (These out-standing players are not credited.) Notes by Richard Dyer are helpful (there is also a brief "comment" by the composer), and the entire 81-minute ballet is fit on a single disc- the longest CD I have encountered. Some may object to the paper packaging in place of the standard jewel box, but that may very well hold up better over time. I have no doubt that the music and performance will also hold up exceptionally well. This is an important release- and an impressive debut for this ambitious label.