Roger Sessions (1896-1985, American)

Has Roger Sessions suffered the fate of many composers after they die – is he now completely forgotten? Is his music ever programmed these days? By pianists or chamber music ensembles, let alone symphony orchestras? Is he still recorded? The first decade or so of the CD saw a flurry of releases, but it seems to have all dried up now. In his lifetime I’m not sure that Sessions was abundantly performed, at least by Symphony Orchestras, but he was certainly recognized. Another “anecdotal” clue comes from looking at the online Archive of the New York Philharmonic. Even in his heydays, Sessions was a very episodic presence at the Philharmonic: starting in 1950, a symphony or concerto could be heard about once every decade (I’d love for a live recording to surface of Bernstein’s 1959 performance of the Violin Concerto with Tossy Spivakovsky!) – and make it two between 1976 and 1997; but nothing since 1997 and Neeme Järvi conducting the First Symphony.

Hard to imagine what a major musical force he was in the United States, not only during his lifetime but even after his death. I had this heated dispute once on Amazon, when someone posted a comment under one of my reviews, disparaging the composer and claiming he had never counted on the American scene. In response, I came up with a good number of quotes from music books and record magazines, that recognized and praised the stature of the composer. You may detest his music, but you can’t deny the importance and recognition he once had in the USA. I didn’t keep a copy of that discussion and research, so when overnight Amazon suppressed all the comments, it was an irksome loss for me.

What happened? Probably that his music was too difficult, too stern, too demanding. I’ve titled some of my Sessions reviews “the symphony Schoenberg never composed” or “more Schoenberg Symphonies by Roger Sessions”, which summarizes my impression of Sessions. Sessions often sounds to me like an extension of the Schoenberg from Variations opus 31, at the orchetral peak of the twelve-tone method: highly rewarding for the cogoscento, but hardly appealing to the wider public. It’s dangerous for a composer to be an “esteemed composer” during his lifetime, because when he dies there is nothing left to sustain the esteem. Well, the records remain.

I’ve heard and reviewed a lot of music by Roger Sessions on, and I still need to repost most of these reviews over here. So far I’ve reposted:

String Quartet No. 2 (1951). Kohon String Quartet (rec. 1974) in The American Composers Series: American String Quartets 1900-1950 (with quartets of William Schuman, Howard Hanson, Virgil Thomson, George Gershwin, Charles Ives, Peter Mennin, Walter Piston, Aaron Copland). VoxBox CDX 5090 (1993)

String Quartet No. 2. Juilliard String Quartet (rec. April 1987). CRI CD 587 (1990) with quartets of Milton Babbitt and Stefan Wolpe. Surprisingly, the Kohon Quartet play much better than the Juilliards (a recording made too close to the end of the distinguished career of this great ensemble).

Violin Concerto (1935). Paul Zukovsky, Orchestre Philharmonique, Gunther Schuller (recorded 1967). CRI CD 676 (1994), paired with the Symphony of Stefan Wolpe. The Violin Concerto, written way before Sessions’ embrace of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone method, is a beautiful, painfully lyrical work, a real surprise and trew discovery when you approach it from the viewpoint of the later Sessions.

And, pending repost, see my Amazon reviews of:

Piano Sonatas 1-3, From My Diary. Robert Helps 1961, 1996-7. CRI CD 800 (1998) barcode 090438080026

Piano Concerto (1956). Robert Taub, The Westchester Philharmonic, Paul Dunkel. New World Records 80443-2 (1994) 093228044321 (with Piano Concerto of Francis Thorne)

Piano Concerto. Robert Taub, Münchner Philharmoniker, James Levine. “Documents of the Munich Years vol. 2”, Oehms Classics OC 502 (2004) 4260034865020 (with Elliott Carter: Variations for Orchestra, Charles Wuorinen: Grand Bamboula, Robert DiDomenica: Symphony)

Concertino for Chamber Orchestra (1972). Contemporary Players of the University of Chicago, Ralph Shapey. Phoenix PHCD137 (1998) 094629301372 (with George Crumb: Songs & Refrains of Death)

Symphony No. 1 (1927. Japan Philharmonic Orchestra, Akeo Watanabe), No. 2 (1946. New York Philharmonic, Dimitri Mitropoulos), No. 3 (1957. Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Igor Buketoff) CRI CD 573 (1990) 090438057325

Symphonies Nos. 4 (1957) & 5 (1964), Rhapsody for Orchestra (1970). Columbus Symphony Orchestra, Christian Badea. New World Records NW 345-2 (1987) 093228034520

Symphonies Nos. 6 (1966), 7 (1967), 9 (1978). American Composers Orchestra, Dennis Russell Davies. Argo 445 519 2 (1995) 028944451924

Symphony No. 8 (1968). The American Symphony Orchestra, Leon Botstein. New World Records 80631-2 (2005) 093228063124 with works of Aaron Copland, George Perle, Bernard Rands

Concerto for Orchestra (1981). Boston Symphony Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa (with Andrzej Panufnik Symphony No. 8: Sinfonia Votiva). Hyperion CDA66050 (1989) 034571160504, reissue Hyperion Helios CDH55100 (2002) 034571151007

Divertimento for Orchestra (1959), Ydill of Theocritus for Soprano and Orchestra (1956). Louisville Orchestra, Peter Leonard 1981, Robert Whitney 1956. First Edition Music FECD 012 (2003) 809157000129.

Comments are welcome