Harbison/Sessions Orchestral Works
A new recording of Sessions's Second Symphony is a landmark—the current one on CRI is a transfer of the first recording with the New York Philharmonic under Mitropoulos released as long ago as 1948. The symphony was completed in 1946, the same year as the Second Piano Sonata. Both works have the same restless energy and, although I have been guarded about some of Sessions, you can't help admiring his persistence.
The symphony's first movement typically alternates passages of frenetic activity and sumptuous lyricism, helped here by the really excellent orchestral sound. Response to the first performance wasn't encouraging—critics found the first movement and the Adagio too long at nine minutes each whereas the second, a mercurial Allegretto, lasts under two minutes: the boisterous finale is then welcome. These proportions may still seem perplexing but Sessions carries the day with his flair for orchestral colour.
John Harbison (b. 1938), who was a pupil of Sessions at Princeton, now adds substantially to his rapidly growing representation on CD with the Symphony No. 2 (1987) and the Oboe Concerto (1991). In writing about earlier releases I have criticized the composer's apparently casual, improvisatory approach to composition (11/93) and DSG (12/93) makes the same sort of point. But these two orchestral works provide greater scope and, given more dramatic space, are more convincing without losing any of Harbison's personal type of unpredictability.
The Oboe Concerto, marvellously played by the dedicatee William Bennett, is unusual in creating a jazz personality, including real bent notes, for the soloist—notably in the bluesy section of the first movement from 3'15''—and big band effects in the finale. Harbison creates a series of decorative panels, almost Poulenc's technique (especially in the finale at 4'44''), skilfully laid out and often with an energy comparable to Sessions. Both the concerto and the symphony play without a break. The latter's second movement (''Daylight'') is an orchestral spectacular: the finale (''Darkness'') sprawls but eventually finds a lovely quiet coda.'