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Roger SESSIONS (1896-1985)
Chamber Music for Strings
Quintet for two violins, two violas and cello (1958) [20.16]*
Canons (to the memory of Igor Stravinsky) for string quartet (1971) [02.04]*
Six Pieces for Solo Cello (1966) [12.52]
String Quartet No. 1 in E minor (1938) [30.51]
The Group for Contemporary Music (Benjamin Hudson, violin; Carol Zeavin, violin; Lois Martin, viola; Joshua Gordon, cello; Jenny Douglass, viola (Quintet))
rec. Recital Hall, Music Division, State University New York, Purchase, New York, USA, 15-16 April 1992 (Quintet, Canons, String Quartet No. 1); The American Academy and Institute of Art and Letters, New York City, USA, 11 September 1991 (Six Pieces). * World première recording. DDD
NAXOS 8.559261 [66.04]

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As part of their successful 'American Classics Series' Naxos turn their attention to the string chamber music of Roger Sessions. These recordings were issued previously on the Koch International Classics label in 1993 and also I believe in 1997.

The stature of Roger Sessions among modern American composers is unquestioned; especially as a teacher. The catalogue of his 42 compositions includes nine symphonies written between 1927 to 1978, three concertos, two operas, a cantata and works in other large formats, as well as chamber music and solo piano works. Of Sessions’ chamber music four scores are represented here, the exception being the Second String Quartet (1951), Duo for Violin and Piano (1942), Sonata for Solo Violin (1953) and an incomplete first movement from the Duo for Violin and Violoncello (1981).

New York City-born Sessions won every major award, including a Pulitzer Prize. Although he composed for three-quarters of a century, from 1910 to 1985, his most productive period came after the age of 60. The String Quintet, the Six Cello Pieces and Canons for String Quartet all date from this late period. His careers as composer and teacher were paralleled by a third, that of writer about music. A highly literate man, Sessions published four books and over forty articles. These include his Norton lectures at Harvard University (Questions about Music), his harmony textbook, Harmonic Practice, and his valuable work The Musical Experience as Composer, Performer, Listener. His essays, edited by Edward T. Cone, are published as Roger Sessions on Music: Collected Essays and his letters, edited by Andrea Olmstead, appear as The Correspondence of Roger Sessions.

The influences of Stravinsky and Bloch, and later of Dallapiccola and Schoenberg, are found in his music, but these voices are used for distinctly personal ends. Certain identifying features characterise the style. One is the much-discussed "long line". Sessions’ long phrases arch gracefully and participate in a highly complex contrapuntal texture. Another characteristic is rhythmic flexibility achieved by frequent shifts of time signature and the use of polyrhythms.

These characteristics are employed in the twelve-tone String Quintet, commissioned by the Music Department at the University of California at Berkeley. Sessions’ love for Mozart’s Quintets in G minor and C major and Schubert’s Quintet in C major, "tempted as a stimulus and challenge to adopt this medium for the new work". The première of the String Quintet took place in 1958 in Berkeley with the eminent Griller Quartet, who performed only the first two movements, as the composer had not completed the score in time. Through the generosity of Paul Fromm the complete String Quintet was given its première in November 1959, in New York by the Lenox Quartet.

Formally, the first movement Movimento tranquillo resembles the first movement of the String Quartet in E minor in that, it too, is modelled on Beethoven's A minor Quartet, with three expositions. The second movement Adagio ed espressivo is aria-like and the third and concluding one marked Allegro appassionato is a sonata allegro. 

In 1971 the editors of Boosey & Hawkes’ periodical Tempo asked distinguished composers to contribute Canons for a 1972 issue dedicated to the memory of Igor Stravinsky, who had died in April 1971. Stravinsky had written of Sessions in 1963, "Roger Sessions is one of the people I most admire and respect: as composer, scholar, teacher, intellect. But last and most, he is a dear friend." Sessions wrote the brief Canons for muted string quartet in August 1971, aboard a ship bound for Oslo. The inscription at the end of the manuscript reads, "On the high seas."

Still in his "neo-Classical" tonal stage, Sessions wrote the String Quartet No. 1 in E minor. Sessions penned the score whilst staying in the summer of 1936 at a ranch near Reno in Nevada, in order to establish residency to obtain a divorce from his first wife and to marry a former student. The score was commissioned by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge and given its première by the Coolidge Quartet at Coolidge’s Eighth Festival of Chamber Music, in April 1937, in Washington D.C. The young Elliott Carter wrote in ‘Modern Music’ of, "a new and important quartet by Roger Sessions. Though no single theme is outstanding (as is often the case with Beethoven) every detail, the cadences, the way the themes are brought in, the texture, the flexibility of the bass, were such as to give constant delight, and at times to be genuinely moving. His sense of a large line gave the music a certain roominess without ever being over expansive."

The Viennese composer Ernst Krenek wrote to Sessions (7 March 1939) of the String Quartet, "I like especially the originality of the harmonic features which give clear evidence of a very personal and deep expressiveness of your music. Furthermore, I was very much impressed by the long breath of some thematic developments, especially in the first movement."

In a programme note for a performance by the Gordon String Group in January 1941, Sessions stated that he was influenced by Beethoven’s String Quartet in A minor, Op. 132, in the formal structure of the work. Marked Tempo moderato the first movement of Sessions’s first String Quartet is a triple exposition, three "stanzas". Each stanza contains three themes which are varied at their return. A specific tempo grants each of the three themes part of its identity. The effect is one of a huge stretto. The second movement Adagio molto begins with an Adagio and is continued by a brief scherzando interlude that leads back to the Adagio. About writing the central movement Sessions remarked that, "It seemed to me that I was writing like Alban Berg already." The third movement Vivace molto, a sonata-allegro form, was Sessions’ strictest form to date. The introduction is followed by the first theme in the viola and the second theme appears in the cello. Sessions commented, "The last movement is probably the most orthodox movement I ever wrote. But it's a lot of fun. To me it brings back the smell of sagebrush and the lovely place out in the country where I lived in Nevada. I rode horseback!"

A swift check has shown that for these works the Group for Contemporary Music currently seem to have the market to themselves. From their foundation in 1962 until 1971 the Group for Contemporary Music was in residence at the Columbia University in the City of New York, followed by a residency at the Manhattan School of Music until 1985. The Group performs throughout with a splendid security of ensemble in performances that abound in character and precision. I especially enjoyed their vitality and convincing sense of forward momentum in the concluding movement Allegro appassionato of the String Quintet and their warm and tender interpretation of the lengthy Adagio molto movement of the first String Quartet is first class.

A few years later Sessions completed the Six Pieces for Solo Cello between writing his Symphony No. 6 (1966) and Symphony No. 7 (1967). The Six Pieces for Solo Cello were written for and dedicated to Sessions’ son John, a cellist. The score had its première at an all-Sessions concert held by the International Society for Contemporary Music, in Carnegie Recital Hall (now Weill Hall), in New York, in March 1968. As in Sessions’ Double Concerto (1971), where two instruments converse with one another, a conversation can be imagined here too, in the contrasting and recitative-like passages given to the solo instrument. The participants in the second movement, Dialogue, Sessions and his son, neither argue nor question and answer one another; it is a friendly conversation. The fourth movement, Berceuse, had definite familial associations for Sessions as well. After his granddaughter (John’s daughter, Teresa) was born he saw her lying in her crib and immediately thought of the opening four bars of the music.

The cellist Joshua Gordon carries the score’s lyrical message with intensity and accomplishment, assisted by the recording that gives the cello a realistic presence. There have been several recordings of Sessions’ Six Pieces for Cello in recent years and the ones most likely to be encountered are those from Matt Haimovitz on his 1995 release entitled ‘The 20th-Century Cello’ Vol. 1 on Deutsche Grammophon 4458342 and also from Pieter Wispelwey on his 2001 disc of ‘20th-Century Solo Cello Works’ on Channel Classics CCS7495.

The Koch International Classics engineers have provided a clear and well balanced sound quality and the liner notes from Andrea Olmstead are exemplary. The chamber music of Roger Sessions is well served by this splendid Naxos release.

Michael Cookson

see also Review by Jonathan Woolf


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