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Roger SESSIONS (1896-1985)
Symphony No. 6 (1966) [20:10]
Symphony No. 7 (1967) [22:38]
Symphony No. 9 (1974-78) [24:24]
American Composers Orchestra/Dennis Russell Davies
rec. Manhattan Center, New York, May 1994.
originally issued in 1996 as Decca-Argo 444 519
PHOENIX PHCD172 [67:12]
Experience Classicsonline

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.

Andrea Olmstead – 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 dissonant epilogue.

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 first issued.

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.

Rob Barnett

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 University Press).



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