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Recital Media Review

A New Recording of Music by the Great American Roger Sessions

January 30, 2016 - Wilmington, NC:

Roger Sessions: Duo (1942), Adagio (1947), "Waltz for Brenda" (1936), Sonata for Violin (1953), & Second [Piano] Sonata (1946). David Bowlin, violin, & David Holzman, piano. BRIDGE 9453. Total Time 62:17. ©2015.

Roger Sessions (1896-1985) is an important American composer whose works are heard in performance too infrequently. His music, typically dense and contrapuntal, is filled with lyrical melody, dynamic rhythms, and often powerful intensity. There is a small but significant body of recordings of his works, and this new disc adds a welcome contribution to that group. The recording includes three major pieces, all written in the 1940s and '50s, along with two incidental ones. It is highly recommended for those who already appreciate Sessions' music, those who would like to know it better, and those who want important 20th-century music in their recorded collections. Sessions' power and expressivity mark him as one of America's finest composers.

The violinist on this disc is David Bowlin, a widely-traveled performer, recording artist, and faculty member at the renowned Oberlin Conservatory – and a founding member of ICE. David Holzman is the pianist. He is a much-honored and leading exponent of 20th-century music as both performer and recording artist.

Sessions' Duo for Violin and Piano of 1942four movements played without pause – is a dense, high-energy piece. It is compellingly played here. In the sustained first movement, Bowlin carries a full-bodied, continuous melodic violin line. The difficult, highly rhythmic and contrapuntal second movement is played with a relatively light piano part, which gives the complicated writing a transparent sound. This is balanced with full, sometimes blistering intensity from the violin. The return of the first movement material is played with similarly sinuous lyricism. The last movement is delightful. Sessions puts forth a – for him – rather unusual jocularity, fully captured in the transparency of the piano sound balancing the light tone of the violin. By contrast, the brief and powerful return of the second movement material carries strong dramatic weight. The shift from this sound back to a light tone is wonderful, and the ending is a fine fadeout.

The short, gloomy tone poem, Adagio (1947), is played with concentrated expressivity. There is a sudden quicker tempo from mm. 3-5, where a steady flow of the line would have been fine. One might wish for a more ethereal tone at the return of the Tempo I. That said, this reading effectively communicates Sessions' sustained long line and peaks in a ringing central climax.

"Waltz for Brenda" is one of several brief children's pieces by Sessions. It is atypical for him and yet appealing. Here it is played with a romantic leaning. Sessions, in his characteristic imaginative fashion, introduces simple yet interesting rhythmic irregularity into the waltz pattern. Given the rhythmic variety already built in, the performance features perhaps more than needed rubato. Also, the hands are consistently split in the chords, with the left hand coming ahead of the right – less rhythmically clear than simply a defined waltz downbeat.

The half-hour Sonata for Violin of 1953 – its four movements played without pause – is one of the most demanding and large-scale pieces ever written for the instrument. Its wide expressive and technical range represent a major artistic achievement for its composer and for any performer who can master its challenges. It is also the centerpiece of this recording – nearly half the length of the disc.

The first movement spans the widest possible dynamic range as well as a huge emotional compass and great technical difficulties. Here it is performed passionately and consummately, with a feeling of spontaneous intensity and an all but unerring precision of pitch. The fearsome difficulties of high-range writing and harmonic density (with a few inaccuracies in the multiple stop chords) are subsumed by the arc of the whole. The performance lives along the long line Sessions spoke of. No matter how jagged the phrases, their shape is always sustained, with resonant top notes fully projecting melodic content.

At nearly ten minutes, this imposing first movement could stand as a work on its own. Despite its rhapsodic nature, it is integral in character, and balanced by an ending on the retrograde of the opening row which brings it to rest on the pitch with which it began. This is followed by a raging virtuoso second movement, performed with both wildness and technical aplomb. The trio, which returns to something of the character of the first movement, fully realizes the marking of appassionato. The return of the A is highly unusual for Sessions in that, except for the addition of a fading measure at the end, it is an exact repeat of the first A.

The ending of the second movement fades beautifully into the third. This nine-minute tone poem exemplifies Sessions the melodist. The leading motif is a highly characteristic rocking figure, here formed as a delicate intertwining in two-part counterpoint. Long sinuous lines unfold, often over a very wide melodic range, rendered here in unbroken rich cantabile. Moments of passion give way to gentle reflection and eventually a deeply thoughtful ending.

The performance carries this large essay in an unbroken arc, snapping into the high energy of the last movement. The intensity of the second movement returns here and is played likewise with power, passion, and always-sustained phrasing. One might wish for greater differentiation between f and ff; that would give benefit in tonal variety. The meditative final section brings back full cantabile before the brief, brilliant ending closes the work and this compelling performance on an emphatic open chord.

Sessions' compact Second Sonata, composed in 1946, rounds off the disc. This is one of the major works in the piano repertory. Sessions turned fifty in the year he wrote it, and this was the point at which his output fairly exploded. The bulk of his complex music was written in the ensuing thirty years, until close to the time he turned eighty.

The first movement is played with a good deal of energy, perhaps more stolidly than con fuoco. Pronounced slowing down in some places, heavily weighted accents, or little breaks in the rhythmic motion, tend to subtract from the propulsive, electric quality. There are also a number of small note inaccuracies.

The second movement has an expressive tone. A more legatissimo touch in the first section would offer still more of Sessions' quintessential "long line." The middle section, with the quicker notes in the melody, might flutter more. The lovely very soft last section captures a strong mood.

The last movement, where the writing is in general lighter than in the first movement, succeeds well. The tempo carries the energy successfully. The movement captures a good deal of the power and intensity so typical of Sessions, and presents a convincing end to this recording of important Sessions works.

The program notes are very well-written, notwithstanding a few minor disagreements to be had on the content. They offer a short biographical portrait of Sessions, with valuable facts and a good overview of the music heard on the disc, as well as its place in Sessions' output.

Strong recommendation for this disc to any listener wanting to build a collection of significant 20th century music!