Japan Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra; Akeo Watanabe, conductor; William Strickland, conductor
Roger Sessions' Symphony No. 1 is a three movement work of complex formal investiture, of considerable linear-contrapuntal density and of a rhythmic elaborateness that its overall “sound” belies. Like all of the Sessions catalogue, this first symphony is likely to seem “difficult” to the listener who seeks easy gratification in facile tunefulness or musical “color.” Sessions—perhaps more than any American composer of his long-range prestige and solidity of reputation—has consistently eschewed the beguiling, the delightful, the “pretty” of music. But the intent ear, the serious musical perception will find much that is profound and absorbing in long-breathed, meticulously wrought, seemingly endless horizontal lyricism that characterizes the second movement of the symphony—a movement that, from a point of view, is Sessions in distillation.
William Bergsma's Music on a Quiet Theme is an uncannily terse (it plays about seven or eight minutes) study in thematic statement and musical climax. Within its passage, a student of music, for example, might very easily examine the processes by which such an aspect might be effected in an extended symphonic work. Still, this curiously succinct—and immaculate work is an entity in itself, a total musical expression in itself. Tonal and essentially diatonic as to style; linear and partwritten as opposed to leeringly “polyphonic”—it states the premise of a musical “argument” and resolves it without fuss, rhetoric or excess verbiage.
Russell Smith’s Tetrameron—according to the score it was completed in New York City in 1957—is a one movement work composed with reference to a 4-part formal plan. It is, what is more, a compact distillation of its composer’s preoccupations. The score is swept clean of fuss, “effect” or padding; its expressive gesture is aristocratic, its manner elegant (“Neo-Classical” is the tired term for untired music of this sort.)
Tetrameron is free of stylistic cliché and easy stylistic frame-of-reference. Its surface is ever so calm, even businesslike. But just as its instrumental is far more chancey and unusual than a well-prepared performance will tell anything but the most alert of ears, the subsurface expressive aura of this work is as tense and highly-charged as its exterior is self-assured and handsome.