Roy Harris's Third Symphony is, without a doubt, the greatest American symphony ever composed and one of the greatest symphonic statements of all times. There are essentially five performances to choose from: Koussevitsky, which is a great performance but the 1939 sound quality makes it uncompetative; Jarvi/Detroit, easily the worst recording available: Jarvi rushes through the entire thing without conveying any emotion or drama, almost as if he was in a hurry; Mata/Dallas, very good sound, solid performance, a good third choice; Bernstein's 1985 live recording for DG (now available on a budget CD with William Schuman's Third Symphony and the Barber Adagio for Strings), quite good but not as good as-; Bernstein's 1961 studio recording for Sony (this CD), the best of them all.
What makes the earlier Bernstein performance the best of the lot is the way in which Bernstein holds the work together, building tension as it develops, and never letting you forget that this is a one movement symphony in which each of the sections develops naturally from the last one. The drama and tragedy is all there, with a particularly rousing "big tune" in the middle, making it one of the most memorable tunes in all of American music. The closing bars of the symphony are shattering in their intensity. Bernstein's later performance for DG does not maintain this level of intensity throughout and, compared to the earlier one, actually sounds a bit (just a bit) lackluster at times. (I say this despite the fact that I usually prefer Bernstein's later recordings, including his later recording of Copland's Third Symphony for DG, recorded at the same 1985 concert as he recorded the later Harris Third!) The development section at the beginning is not held together as well as in the earlier Sony recording. The emergence of the "big tune" is not as exciting in this later performance, nor are the tragic last bars as hard hitting. The digital sound on the DG recording is nice, but the remastered Sony recording does not pale in comparison. In fact, it is one of the best remastered recordings I've ever heard from Sony. It is very clear, with a very strong dynamic impact, and minimal tape hiss. I was actually surprised the recording sounded so good, given when it was recorded. So while it's worthwhile to get the DG recording for the Schuman Third and Barber it is coupled with, the ultimate Harris Third will forever be this Sony recording.
The Thompson Second Symphony is a truly wonderful piece of American music, anything but dull. It is easy to enjoy and remains quite memorable long after it's over. It may not be as deep as the Harris, but it's an American masterpiece nonetheles. I am not a huge fan of the Diamond Fourth Symphony, but it is interesting, and deserves to be heard. Both of these symphonies are played to perfection by Bernstein and the NY Philharmonic.
In sum, this CD is a must own for lovers of American symphonic music, and it contains what is undoubtedly the best recording of Roy Harris's Third Symphony you'll ever hear.
[Later note: I have recently heard one last contender in the Harris Third recordings, the recently released Marin Alsop/Colorado SO on Naxos. This performance is definitely better than Jarvi in performance and Koussevitsky in sound quality but it is no match for either of Bernstein's two recordings. The Alsop performance is very underwhelming; she doesn't rush through it like Jarvi, but she doesn't give it the weight it needs to make an impact. The opening doesn't generate any tension and the entry of the "big tune" is very disappointing. It probably rates slightly behind Mata's Dallas recording, if only because of Mata's superior orchestra and sound. This 1961 Bernstein recording is still the best one ever done and will probably remain so!]