Columbia University Group for Contemporary Music

Roger Sessions: Quintet; Quartet

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A quick glance at his discography reveals that Roger Sessions' chamber works are seriously under-recorded, so this 1993 recording by the Group for Contemporary Music on Koch International Classics is a welcome addition to a lamentably meager catalog. Listeners just beginning to explore his fascinating music may choose to start off with the String Quartet No. 1 in E minor (1938), since it bears some interesting resemblances to Beethoven's String Quartet in A minor, Op. 132, and is a product of Sessions' neo-Classical phase. Even though it is not tonal in the traditional sense (it only touches on key-like areas tangentially, and vaguely implies chromatic modulations in its active developments), this early quartet is not one of Sessions' more advanced dodecaphonic compositions. The other important work on the program, the Quintet for two violins, two violas, and cello (1958), is more challenging than the comparatively accessible string quartet, yet it is more deeply satisfying, especially so for those with an appreciation for richly expressive and refined twelve-tone music. Sessions' ideas are logical, balanced, and fully integrated in this concentrated serial work, but one comes away from it recalling only the poignant lyricism of its long lines, the beauty of its transparent textures, and the richness of its harmonies. Put simply, this is one of the most eloquent chamber works of the twentieth century, and the vibrant performance by the Group for Contemporary Music is the CD's true high point, not to be missed. The extremely short and muted Canons (to the memory of Igor Stravinsky) for string quartet (1971) and the Six Pieces for Cello (1966) are less essential fare, though some may find they are needed to clear the air between the two featured works.

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