American Classics - Sessions: Quartet, Etc

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This is one of a series of recordings of contemporary American music made in the early 1990s, originally released on the Koch label. The Group for Contemporary Music boasts a diverse membership, depending upon the instrumentation required, but the standard of execution is top notch throughout, and the recording quality is, too. Anyone at all curious about serious 20th-century American chamber music should have no hesitation in acquiring the whole series.

Having said that, I don’t know that I would start here. Roger Sessions, of all the composers covered, is perhaps the least easy to love. Feldman sets his own intriguing challenges (primarily to do with our conception of time); Wuorinen and Babbitt, complex as they are, provide timbral attractions along the way and a sense of a distinct personality at work—a compellingly mischievous one, in the case of Babbitt. None of that happens with Sessions. Tellingly, every thumbnail biography begins by emphasizing his qualities as a respected teacher and writer on music before dealing with his work as a composer. He adopted strict serialism finally in the late 1950s, just as other serialists like Rochberg were gearing up to break away, but even prior to that one gets a whiff of exclusion about his music: a feeling induced in the listener (or, I should stress, in this listener) that we must wait and amuse ourselves while certain processes are worked through. Even in the rightly admired Symphony No. 2 of 1946, which bursts into life with colorful exuberance, points are reached where procedure seems to take precedence over imagination (intricate and rigorous though the process may be). In the symphony’s Adagio, which starts out so sublimely, Sessions’s prominent arching themes soon reach a stage where they meander. Launched by the heart, they lose their luster when the head takes charge. In the decades when Sessions was at his most prolific (the 1950s–1970s) this tendency became problematic.

The String Quartet No. 1 on this CD is an early work, composed in 1936—not 1938, as the disc notes proclaim—an error carried forward from the Koch issue, despite having been corrected by James H. North in his original Fanfare review (17:4). The composer’s friend Stravinsky is often cited as an early influence, notably in the ballet “The Black Maskers,” although Stravinsky was too quick to reinvent himself ever to be imitated (except by George Antheil, who did it literally via the cut-and-paste method). Perhaps the Russian master’s influence on Sessions’s quartet is clearest in the Vivace molto finale–a crisp, vigorous movement driven by the inbuilt rhythmic vitality of its themes. It is dispatched with great panache in this performance. The slow movement (Adagio molto) is the longest (14: 19), and here Sessions’s lyrical side is given full reign. The long, arching lines weave in and out of a complex and often dissonant texture; a yearning, late-Romantic atmosphere confirms that the true spiritual godfather of this composer is Brahms. Unlike the Adagio of the later second symphony, the movement never hangs fire because its structure incorporates scherzando episodes, propelled at times by pulsing pizzicatos, wherein short motifs derived from the opening theme are given their own polyphonic workout.

The three remaining works are flintier post-Schoenbergian nuts to crack. Well played though they are by Joshua Gordon, the six Pieces for Cello are aridity personified. The aphoristic Canons (to the memory of Igor Stravinsky) for string quartet (1971) is more enticing, aptly grave in its pared-back way—serial Stravinsky (hence Webern), the natural model.

The opening work, the String Quintet of 1958, I find the least accommodating. North wrote that it took him a few hearings before “its 12-tone vocabulary . . . (faded) before its singing line and emotional intensity.” (Another reviewer, Scott Wheeler, thought the performance too rushed and missing something in character.) Frankly, the few hearings that North (and I!) gave the work in our professional capacity may be a few too many for the casual listener. The opening measures of the first movement with its lurching first violin and dense underlying activity induce a distinct feeling of seasickness—although, like seasickness, you can force yourself to get used to it if the journey is important enough. Interestingly, Sessions once told musicians rehearsing this quintet that “the principal voice must predominate as in Italian opera,” but as Robin Holloway points out in an essay in his collection On Music (Continuum 2003), the reason 12-tone music sounds “wrong” is because the predominant voice gets no harmonic support. If anything, the accompanying material undermines it. (When that doesn’t happen, as in the 12-tone variations linking the scenes of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, the ear discovers that a tone row is also a tune.)

To sum up: Sessions’s singing line and emotional intensity are here to be sampled if you’re willing to try, and you certainly don’t have to shell out much cash to form your own opinion. The String Quartet is the best way in. Once again, Naxos is to be commended for taking a worthwhile risk.

FANFARE: Phillip Scott

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 8559261

  • UPC: 636943926123

  • Label: Naxos

  • Composer: Roger Sessions

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Group for Contemporary Music

  • Performer: Benjamin Hudson, Carol Zeavin, Jenny Douglass, Joshua Gordon, Lois Martin


  1. Quintet for Strings

    Composer: Roger Sessions

    Performer: Jenny Douglass (Viola), Joshua Gordon (Cello), Benjamin Hudson (Violin), Lois Martin (Viola), Carol Zeavin (Violin)

  2. Canons for String Quartet

    Composer: Roger Sessions

    Ensemble: Group for Contemporary Music

    Performer: Joshua Gordon (Cello), Benjamin Hudson (Violin), Lois Martin (Viola), Carol Zeavin (Violin)

  3. Pieces (6) for Cello solo

    Composer: Roger Sessions

    Ensemble: Group for Contemporary Music

    Performer: Joshua Gordon (Cello)

  4. Quartet for Strings no 1 in E minor

    Composer: Roger Sessions

    Ensemble: Group for Contemporary Music

    Performer: Joshua Gordon (Cello), Benjamin Hudson (Violin), Lois Martin (Viola), Carol Zeavin (Violin)