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Roger SESSIONS (1896-1985)
Quintet for two violins, two violas and cello (1958) [20.16]
Canons (to the memory of Stravinsky) for string quartet (1971) [2.04]
Six Pieces for Cello (1966) [12.52]
String Quartet No.1 in E minor (1938) [30.51]
The Group for Contemporary Music
Joshua Gordon (cello)
rec. State University of New York, Purchase, April 1992; American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, NYC, September 1991 (Six Pieces for Cello)
NAXOS 8.559261 [66.04]



These were first released on Koch International in 1993 where they saw good service. Re-release at Naxos budget price will give them even wider currency. These were always fine performances with recordings to match and a decade on their place in the Sessions discography is unaltered.

The Quintet was premiered by the Lennox Quartet in 1959 though the augmented Grillers had performed the first two movements the previous year. It’s reminiscent of the Schoenberg quartets, a powerful, occasionally rather sickly work, with Sessions’ famously long line reserved for the central adagio. Here the first violin unfolds an evocative aria, with material harmonically advanced but never dense. The cutting sabre of the first violin is again a feature of the quintet’s finale, a forceful Schoenbergian one.

The much earlier 1938 Quartet is far less uningratiating work. In fact it shows Session’s strongest features in the deliberate inspiration of Beethoven’s Op.132 Quartet. Krenek referred to this work’s “long breath of thematic developments” – and he was referring specifically to the first movement, though it equally applies to the central one as well. The key and tempo changes are invigorating, the faster central panel of the opening movement being especially breathless and exciting. That slow movement is expressive and intense, whilst the finale is vibrant, slashing and energising. There are delightful lines for the viola and for some rough and tumble cellistic moments strong on rustic undertow. The surging rhythm drives a freewheeling ending. One can understand the popularity of the quartet in the same way that one appreciates the respect in which the quintet is held – though for me the quintet remains a remote and unlikeable work.

The brief Stravinsky Canons is a cool two minute elegy. And the Six Pieces for Cello, written for the composer’s cellist son, are brief but never aphoristic. They make considerable demands on rhythmic control but also extend a genuinely warm romance in the lulling Berceuse, ending with an Adagio epilogue. 

With expert performances and reprised notes this is a self-recommending disc. Those unconvinced by the quintet may yet revel in the quartet, a work well worth getting to know – and at this price there’s no reason not to.

Jonathan Woolf


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