American Early Modern composer Roger Sessions [1896-1985] wrote two string quartets. I would characterise him as being part of the significant evolution of the American string quartet movement in the 1950s. Unfortunately, the two quartets cannot be found on the same CD. In considering my review, the prospect of the Juilliard Quartet and a piece with four slow movements out of five, I opted for the Second Quartet, even though the availability is slightly problematic.
The CD liner notes infer that Sessions used a serial approach but was unencumbered by many of the conventions associated with that technique, instead relying on traditional concepts of form and structure – basically having a foot in both camps.
The work opens in a lento tempo, featuring a very long, searing violin line, which gradually becomes a fugue. I don’t believe I have ever heard such a long fugue subject. The overlapping lines create a distinct air of mystery as the ensemble wanders through a serial soundscape. Although at a slow tempo, the music is relentless as all instruments contribute to the mood. A pause signals a change and a solo cello leads the ensemble into a very hectic passage with dissonances in abundance – I wouldn’t have it any other way, it’s very alluring. Now a chaos unfolds, but rapidly dissipates into a measured section with low cello tones offering up solid pulses. A new mood ensues, with a violin ostinato which doesn’t last and the sound is now one of sparse serial beauty, the cello being particularly sonorous.
The next movement, an allegro, appears out of nowhere with a period of high intensity bringing further feelings of chaos. A change again invokes a period of mystery as the cello dialogues with the violins in a measured manner. The cello begins to pulse and introduces a further period of chaos and tonal instability. This is a fairly typical American 1950’s style with dissonance and entropy both being prominent. A relief ensues with a softer, almost lyrical passage, leading to a wonderful, engaging sound. The intensity soon returns however, but gradually subsides to end the movement.
Now we are back into slow territory, this time with an andante tempo marking. Sumptuous string sounds form another most alluring mood, with seemingly random melodic statements from all instruments. The cello is very strong here with sustained arco tones blending into the mix of violin expression. There is no tempo here, just a thoughtful soundscape. For me this music evokes Milton Babbitt and Elliott Carter, mostly in their more peaceful moments. Very broad melodic lines quietly simmer and the mystery is preserved. A slight lift in intensity doesn’t last and the serial musings continue in a prolonged period of abstraction. This one-dimensional sound finally gives way to a faded conclusion.
The fourth movement, marked adagio, opens with an animated series of violin and cello flourishes. This feeling continues for some time until a conversational passage is heard as the instruments gently respond to each other. A return to the opening feeling leads me to wonder about the ‘adagio’, as I don’t hear any of that tempo in this music. It feels more allegro than the second movement, although it does eventually peter out to a subdued ending.
The final movement is again marked adagio, and so it is. A modern, but stately introduction features rich tones from the violins – that’s the Juilliard for you… The music meanders with absolutely no sense of tempo, although it does turn a little serious for a time. A gentle nature brings with it much beauty, albeit in a serial manner. Nearing the end, the music diminishes in all ways and fades to conclude.
The review CD, by the Juilliard Quartet on the Composers Records label, also contains string quartets by Stefan Wolpe and Milton Babbitt, both members of the 1950’s American string quartet movement. This is only available as Used and New from Amazon resellers on Amazon US and UK. Session’s First Quartet is paired with a String Quintet on the Naxos label, performed by the Group for Contemporary Music. This version is a reissue of a Koch recording, which is still available on Amazon UK.
Listenability: A fine, non-confronting Modern quartet.