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Roger SESSIONS (1896-1985)
Duo for violin and piano (1942) [14:00]
Adagio for piano (1947) [3:23]
Waltz for Brenda [1:26]
Sonata for solo violin (1953) [29:13]
Piano sonata No. 2 (1946) [13:28]
David Bowlin (violin)
David Holzman (piano)
rec. 17 December 2009 (Piano Sonata No. 2), 18 December 2011 (Duo), 19-20 September 2012 (Sonata for violin), American Academy of Arts and Letters, NYC; 3-4 June 2012 (Adagio, Waltz), Granoff Music Center, Distler Hall, Tufts University.
BRIDGE 9453 [61:30]

Roger Sessions was much sought after as a teacher and greatly respected as a composer but his music has yet to come in from the cold, as has that of his younger contemporary Elliott Carter. Although several of his works have been recorded, the recordings tend not to stay around, and some his most important works, such as his two operas (Trial of Lucullus (1947) and Montezuma (1940s-64)), have not been recorded at all.

So this disc of violin works would be very welcome even if it were less good than it is. The good side of Sessions’ neglect is that he is only performed by players who are really interested in his work and want to perform it. The commitment of David Bowlin and David Holzman shines through these performances and makes even the grittiest writing clear and attractive.

The Duo is really a sonata but in an unconventional form. The violin begins with a lovely slow chromatic theme, low in its register. This develops into a soaring violin line with a flowing and eloquent piano. This is then interrupted by a faster movement, rather Hindemithian in character, with rhythmic zest and contrapuntal writing. The slow movement resumes and we end with a faster movement quite unlike the earlier one, marked ‘fast, gay, with fire’ and in character a kind of dance.

Before the other main work we have two trifles, so slight that they are not mentioned in Andrea Olmstead’s standard study of the composer. The Adagio, unpublished in the composer’s lifetime, was written for a colleague’s retirement. It is rather in the vein of Schoenberg’s Six little piano pieces. A winding melodic line is accompanied by thick chords in the bass. It is rather gloomy, for which the composer apologized.

The Waltz for Brenda is a short and simple piano piece written for the birth of a neighbour’s child; it should not be confused with the much later 1978 waltz. It sounds a bit like Prokofiev.

The Sonata for violin is a major work for solo violin, comparable to Bartók’s solo sonata. There is a declamatory opening; Sessions only realized later that it was a twelve tone row and he only gradually adopted the serial technique. He does not eschew tonal references or repetitions and the movement steadily becomes plaintive and enquiring. There is a highly expressive middle section and the movement ends with a gentler version of the movement's first pages. This leads immediately into the Molto vivo second movement, which is in effect a scherzo. This is very agile indeed in a playful, self-absorbed manner. There is a slower middle section, and then an exact repeat of the opening. The slow movement is straightforwardly lyrical with short phrases of three or four notes which climb and descend. The finale, though marked All marcia is really more of a waltz. It is exuberant and energetic.

To fill up the disc we have the second of Sessions’ three piano sonatas. Despite being later than the Duo this is not a serial work, though close to it. It is, however, very dissonant. The opening movement is a kind of sonata allegro with passages which are both imploring and savage. The slow movement is lyrical with a long line which becomes increasingly florid over varying accompaniments. The Finale focuses on a clumping main theme which was suggested by Nazi storm-troopers’ goose-steps. There is a relentless forward movement, somewhat comparable to the finale of Prokofiev’s seventh piano sonata, which eventually leads to a triumphant theme which, however, struggles to hold its place.

Bowling and Holzman have mastered the often very demanding writing for their respective instruments and play with real flair and commitment. The recording is clear though rather close but consistent across the different recording venues and dates. There have been other recordings of the main works here but they are hard to find. I was able to compare Holzman’s piano sonata with that of Barry Salwen in an Albany disc (TROY802) of all Sessions’ piano music. Salwen finds more light and shade in the writing and perhaps projects the form of the work more clearly but Holzman is no slouch and his more robust conception is equally valid. It has taken some time for these performances to be issued and we should be grateful to the sponsors who include the Edward T. Cone Foundation and the New York Foundation for the Arts. Sessions is worth getting to know and this recording is most welcome.

Stephen Barber



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