Brief Reviews

I have been accumulating a big pile of CDs that I have been meaning to mention here, let’s make a start at reducing the size of that stack. These are not new CDs, not even recent ones, just items that I have been listening to relatively recently.

UnknownRoger Sessions: Symphony No. 4, Symphony No. 5, Rhapsody. Columbus Symphony Orchestra, Christian Badea, conductor. You and I will most likely never hear this music performed live, sad to say. Mid-century American symphonism finds little place in contemporary orchestral programming, with a few exceptions (Slatkin, Schwarz) to the contrary. Surely the Hanson 2nd could find a home alongside the relatively user-friendly pieces that Robert Spano champions in Atlanta (However, I must say that, if forced to choose, I would prefer to see living composers performed). Surely the Rochberg 2nd, and the Harris and Schuman 3rds deserve to see the light of day (Bernstein championed and recorded the latter two pieces for DG).  I don’t know all the Sessions symphonies, so I can’t say what the strongest works among them might be, but even though they are more challenging for listeners than the music of the “Atlanta School“, there is music here that should not remain on the library shelf.

And yet, while they may not be heard in the concert hall, all nine symphonies of Roger Sessions have been issued on CD. The Fourth and Fifth symphonies date from 1958 and 1964 respectively. The Fourth is in three movements with titles – “Burlesque”, Elegy” and “Pastoral” – that suggest character pieces rather than a more abstract discourse. The overall shape is interesting – a relatively short, vigorous first movement, then two more moderately paced pieces (with contrasting sections), the Elegy being my favorite for its moments of hushed atmosphere. I like the Fifth even better. It is compact – three movements played without pause, and running a little over 18 minutes. Writing in the album’s accompanying booklet, Martin Brody refers to “the characteristic gesture of Sessions’ music, its often-noted ‘long line'”. I think, especially in the Fifth, that the long line is less a matter of extended tunes, and more a matter of densely woven counterpoint that keeps the music moving in a continuous flow, no matter the kaleidoscopic array of quickly changing colors and gestures. The Rhapsody (1970) is a metaphorical blast throughout, as well as literally, given the fortissimo repeated notes in the horns that open the piece. Sessions’ Stravinsky-ian side comes to the fore here, specifically the fierce energy of Sacre. I’ve definitely heard concert openers in recent years that were less appealing and graspable than this lively piece. You won’t mistake the Columbus (Ohio) Symphony for the orchestra 150 miles to the north, but the performances are solid and you will get a good sense of the pieces.*

UnknownPaul Desmond: Late Lament. I love Desmond’s playing, so it is sad to say that this is pretty dreadful stuff. The rhythm sections for these 1961 and 1962 sessions include masters such as Milt Hinton, Jim Hall, and Connie Kay, but the players are enveloped in pretentious and saccharine orchestral arrangements. (If the harpist was paid by the lush glissando, she could have retired after this gig.) It makes you realize that Desmond might have been better served by the sometimes astringent and awkward backdrop that Brubeck provided (or by the simplicity of the bass and drums texture when Brubeck was silent), as well as appreciating that Desmond’s other records with Jim Hall, while more mellifluous than the Brubeck quartet, never cross the line into the cloying territory where this disc resides.

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*) By the way, I was appalled to see that the Cleveland Orchestra appears to be playing exactly one piece by a living composer (Rouse) during all of the coming season.

Overton overtones

Yet another important post by Ethan Iverson at Do the Math, this time on Hall Overton, the fellow I mentioned below in connection with Robin D. G. Kelley’s book on Monk. Let me add a couple of points around the margins of the post:

-A good survey of the music of Miriam Gideon –  perhaps my favorite of the “mid-century classical music women geniuses” mentioned by Iverson – can be found on New World Records. I believe Gideon is best known for her vocal music, but this retrospective disc includes both vocal and instrumental pieces, including a very fine piano sonata. (Correction: The New World album has many fine pieces, but Gideon’s piano sonata is actually on a different disc, an older CRI recording, with Robert Black playing. Should not have relied on my memory of the contents of that disc! New World Records is handling the tremendous catalog of the late lamented Composers Recordings Inc., and has re-issued the more recent albums on CD. Their site seems to say that while earlier CRI recordings will eventually be put on CD, the old LPs are still available – though I would have to say I haven’t tried to order one. Ethan Iverson, who has been trying to track down the Gideon sonata score and recording, has written to New World about this. The score, by the way, is available through American Composers Alliance.)

-Iverson mentions attending a concert by Robert Helps playing Roger Sessions, a program also attended by, among others, Garrick Ohlsson and Alfred Brendel. Ohlsson, who is a wonderful advocate for Wuorinen, would be fantastic in Sessions, the Second or Third Sonatas in particular, rather than the more introverted First. But try to imagine Brendel playing Sessions; it’s hard to know what to think. The Schoenbergian side of the music would come to the fore?

– Myriad classical composers have worked as jazz pianists (as an example, find out about John Harbison’s recordings from the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival here), but I agree with Iverson that it is tough to come up with classical composers who played piano with jazz musicians of historic importance as did Overton and Mel Powell. There was a legend around my undergrad school that one of my teachers, the late composer Rudolph Bubalo, had played piano for Sarah Vaughan; no way of confirming that now, surely no recordings to document it. If you look beyond the piano for a musician performing on a truly high level in both classical and jazz worlds, the first composer you would bump into would be, of course, Gunther Schuller. A less well known example is the late Donald Martino, who was a good enough jazz clarinetist to have played with Bill Evans. I’d be interested to hear what Iverson would have to say about Martino’s quite superb piano music. Martino’s Fantasies and Impromptus is very high on my list of greatest American piano pieces. (Note that the link is to a disc that includes Robert Helps’s reading of the Sessions Third as well as Martino’s Fantasies and Impromptus.)