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While Roger Sessions (1896-1985) composed
“When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” in the late 1960’s
and completed orchestration of this piece in 1970, there was
evidence that his conception of the piece began during the
1920’s. Apparently, he did not feel ready to complete
the piece until the 1960’s, when he received a commission
from the University of California at Berkeley. Sessions
dedicated the work to the memories of
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and to Robert F. Kennedy.
The premiere performance of it was given on the
Berkeley campus in 1971.

Sessions used text from Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,”
which was the famous poet’s memorial to
President Abraham Lincoln, and he created a 42-minute piece
in three parts which is reminiscent of a dirge. As with
Sessions pieces since the 1950’s, it is a serial (i.e., 12-tone)
work, and thereby will be regarded as challenging by many
listeners. I’ll acknowledge that it sounds bleak and dreary.
Obviously, many will decide to steer clear of this piece.
However, I believe that the efforts of careful listening will
be rewarded. I liked the challenge and given the idiom, I
found the work to be quite effective.

You’ll have to dig to locate recordings of works by Sessions
from major artists. Thus far, I’ve noticed that single
recordings of his works appear to be the norm, which may
be the case with the 1977 disc I heard. It was released by
the enterprising New World Records label, whose excellent
reputation is well deserved. The major artists featured
include soprano Esther Hinds, mezzo-soprano Florence Quivar
and baritone Dominic Cossa, who were supported by the joint
forces of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the
Tanglewood Festival Chorus, under the baton of Seiji Ozawa.

While the performance results were commendable, I couldn’t
help but imagine the results under the stewardship of
Robert Shaw. Incidentally, Maestro Shaw commissioned the
“Requiem” from Paul Hindemith in 1945, which is based on
the same aforementioned Walt Whitman poem. The orchestra
was obviously first-rate, but I believe that it also could have
benefited from additional drilling. I suppose that the three
soloists sang well; however, I could have used a bit more
“fervor.” Nevertheless, we should be grateful for this highly
credible recording, which I was happy to find. Until I become
aware of a better one, this disc will have to do.

As always with recordings released by the New World label,
the accompanying booklet featured wonderful essays
regarding Roger Sessions and Walt Whitman,
written by Michael Steinberg and Justin Kaplan, respectively.
The available selected bibliography and discography were
also helpful. This CD is definitely worthwhile for
adventurous listeners.

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