It is some while since I last heard anything by Sessions. The
last complete disc was the invaluable CRI
collection of his first three symphonies.
– the authority on Sessions - helpfully and fluently
set the scene in her notes for this disc.
The three works
here were written during a ten year period. Superficially they
are not the most approachable of symphonies. Sessions' style
is full of discontinuity and jagged angularity. Two of these
three symphonies (6 and 7) belong to the late 1960s and in their
strenuous outer movements tap into the sour violence of the
times. The Sixth Symphony is expressed in the language
of bleak dissonance but encased in a style that rattles and
seethes with individual instrumental voices. They are in dialogue
at one moment and the next proceed as if each is speaking and
neither is listening. Davies is a dab hand in this repertoire
and stays in touch with the forward momentum of this tough music.
In their strange way these three symphonies are just as prone
to damagingly rhapsodic asides in the wrong hands as Bax or
Rachmaninov. Davies knows the traps and avoids them.
The Seventh Symphony
is dedicated to Jean Martinon. As much as the first movement
of its predecessor the Allegro con fuoco of the Seventh
has its lyrical and Barber-like moments even if these are heard
in the least undulating of melodies as in the middle movement
of the Seventh. The finale ends boldly with a hesitant and quietly
The Ninth Symphony
is from 1974. It was commissioned by Frederick Prausnitz
whose 1974 BBC studio recording of the short Eighth Symphony
and Rhapsody introduced me to Sessions' work. Chilly woodwind
solos reach out tendrils towards the listener time and again.
The central movement opens with a trombone solo the motif of
which is taken up by the rest of the orchestra. This carries
over from the end of the middle movement to the start of the
finale with its jerky-hooky writing.
It is fascinating
again to hear these works from the high summer of dodecaphony.
They return to the catalogue in a world where style diversity
is the watchword and where the reception of dissonance is likely
to be even more accommodating than when these recordings were
Phoenix have done
sensationally well in striking a deal with Decca. There are plenty
more of the same in their Argo Modern series so let's keep our
fingers crossed for future instalments.
Note: Andrea Olmstead is the author of ‘Roger Sessions
and His Music’ (UMI Research Press), ‘Conversations with Roger
Sessions’, and ‘The Correspondence of Roger Sessions’ (both Northeastern