Sessions: Orchestral Works

Author: 
Michael Oliver

Sessions: Orchestral Works

  • Symphony No. 4
  • Symphony No. 5
  • Rhapsody for Orchestra
  • Symphony No. 4
  • Symphony No. 5
  • Rhapsody for Orchestra

Roger Sessions (1896-1985) is a composer of far greater importance than the rare occurrence of his name on concert programmes would suggest. He seems (all too familiar story) to have been too modern for the conservatives and too conservative for the avant-garde; and perhaps, for those who expect American music to proclaim its nationality in every bar, he was too 'European' as well. His modernism and his conservatism amount to the same thing: he worked his way, via a Stravinskyan neo-classicism (never wholly abandoned), to an un-doctrinaire serialism which he found an ideal discipline and framework for his mercurial imagination. He never used the system as a crutch or as a substitute for invention; he broke its 'rules' whenever he needed to.
Session's judicious adaptation of serialism to meet his own needs, his predilection for 'abstract' musical structures and for the symphony in particular (he wrote eight of them) are all aspects of his profound seriousness: his music is closely and toughly argued, with no asides, parentheses or wasted notes. It needs alert listening, since its processes of change are often quite swift (though on a second hearing we realize how carefully prepared, how essentially long-term they are). Yet the rewards are great, since despite Sessions's formidable technical mastery there is nothing in the least dry about him. His music is always expressive, often intensely so, and often powerfully dramatic. He has a marvellous gift for the long, seamless melody, and despite the bracing energy and the steeply angular lines of some of his quick music he seems to have been a fundamentally lyrical composer. The Fifth Symphony, for example, has great variety of pace, mood and texture but begins in a mood of refined, filigree lyricism that is referred to throughout until (a characteristic Sessions moment) the resolute finale falls abruptly silent and the opening idea, now much extended, returns for a summation that owes part of its great beauty to its satisfying logic. His logic is not always so obvious: the conclusion of the orchestral Rhapsody is no less satisfying for being quite unexpected. It seems to be basically an ABA structure, but the recurrence of the A-section (fast, strenuous, almost barbaric music) is suddenly interrupted by exclamatory chords ushering in a plangently expressive epilogue, mainly for strings, which in its turn is swept aside by the imperious return of the work's opening gesture. The effect is at once disconcerting and inevitable. The Fourth Symphony is easier to approach than the Fifth or the Rhapsody, especially the nobly impressive slow movement, an Elegy that can be bitter as well as poignant, just as the opening Burlesque contains fierce energy as well as nimble wit and the concluding Pastorale an unexpected vehemence and shadow amidst its floridly gracious lines.
Sessions's work is not easy to perform: voices emerge from and recede into the flux, instrumental balances are precisely calculated, moods change rapidly, and in careless or uncomprehending hands it can easily seem messy or grey. Badea obviously believes in it passionately, and his performances are finely prepared and urgently communicative (goodness, if the Columbus orchestra play like this for their studio debut what can we look forward to later?). The close and crisp recording was made, by the sound of it, in a smallish hall, but orchestral colour emerges with great pungency. If you want convincing that Sessions is a major composer, I can think of few better proofs than this recording.'

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