When Serge Koussevitzky premiered the Third Symphony of Roy Harris (1898-1979) with the Boston Symphony in 1939 he commented that this was the 'first great American symphony.' That's stretching it a bit -- I'm sure you can come up with other earlier candidates -- but he was right about it being great. In fact, I would say it is one of the very greatest American symphonies of any era before or since and indeed one of the entire music world's great symphonies of the twentieth century. It has had a number of fine recordings -- the best, musically, is Koussevitzky's own but its 1939 sound is pretty dim, and the Toscanini of a couple of years later is not much better -- including two by Leonard Bernstein. As far as I know the only reasonably recent recording is a fine one by Neeme Järvi and the Detroit Symphony (coupled with another great American symphony, Schuman's Third). But this performance by the Colorado Symphony led by Marin Alsop stands shoulder to shoulder in that crowd and has many wonderful things to recommend it. Alsop and her band manage the slow and inexorable accelerando in the first half of the symphony (created by Harris largely by diminution of note values) with pent-up excitement. The strings make a lovely scrim with their polytonal arpeggios in contrary motion a little further on and the orchestra's way with the fugal section with its brass interjections is nothing short of sensational. This is a great Harris Third, make no mistake. Recorded sound is excellent, too.
Unfortunately, the five-section single-movement Third lasts only about eighteen minutes. The rest of this disc is taken up with the Fourth, a forty-minute cantata-like collection of choral settings of American folksongs with some instrumental intermezzi. It includes such familiar songs as 'The Girl I Left Behind Me', 'The Streets of Laredo' (treated in canon!), and 'Johnny Comes Marching Home.' I can easily imagine it being a crowd-pleaser at a pops concert but I can't take it too seriously either as a 'symphony' or as a piece of concert music. Add to that the somewhat less than ideal contribution of the Colorado Symphony Chorus (although their diction in these familiar songs is exemplary, making the lack of texts in the enclosed booklet a minor problem), and it becomes a matter of individual taste as to whether you'd want this disc. This is the only recording of the Fourth as far as I know and Naxos announces that this disc is the beginning of a project to record all thirteen of Harris's 'orchestral symphonies' (several of the others were for other instrumental forces). There was a time when Harris figured frequently on American orchestral concert programs, but not in the past thirty or more years, so this is a welcome development.
Recommended heartily for the Third, somewhat less so for the Fourth.