Sessions: Concerto for Orchestra (CD Review)

Also, Panufnik: Sinfonia Votiva (Symphony No. 8) 
Seiji Ozawa, Boston Symphony Orchestra. Hyperion CDA 66050.

By Karl W. Nehring

Sometimes it is interesting to consider perspectives when thinking about music and its enjoyment – or lack thereof. Most readers of Classical Candor visit the site because they have an interest in and appreciation for what is usually designated "classical music." That term covers quite a variety of performance types (e.g., symphonies, concertos, tone poems, chamber music (with its own set of performance types – quartets, trios, sonatas, etc.), operas, oratorios, and so forth. Then there are musical periods to consider, such as baroque, classical, romantic, modern, neoclassical, etc., along with styles associated with countries/regions of origin, tonality or lack thereof, serialism, minimalism, etc. 

I would think that by now you see where I am going with this: as classical music lovers, we all have our preferences, prejudices, and perspectives when it comes to classical music. All of us like some of it, love some of it, hate some of it – but none of us has listened to all of it. There is just simply too much out there for us to hear it all. As a result, most of us tend to stay within our comfort zones. Not entirely, of course, but I hope that what I am saying resonates with most of us. Just within the genre of orchestral music, for example, we have our favorite composers, favorite orchestras, favorite conductors, favorite soloists, favorite recordings, along with a mental checklist of composers, performers, and musical styles that we at minimum tend to avoid and occasionally just outright despise.     

Seiji Ozawa
There is another distinction about music preferences that is worth mentioning briefly, music that attempts to draw you in as opposed to music that attempts to reach out and grab you. We might for lack of better terms call these tendencies "introvert" and "extrovert," respectively. This is of course a subjective distinction that will vary from person to person, but one that at least in broad terms most listeners will tend to find familiar. Consider the contrast between, say, Spiegel im Spiegel by Arvo Pärt and Fanfare for the Common Man by Aaron Copland. Yes, that is an extreme example of such a contrast. In most cases, the contrast will be less pronounced. A music-loving friend whom I asked for a an example of such a contrast (which I had never discussed with him before – I just surprised him with the question by way of a text message) came back quickly with Liszt's Totentanz, Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3, and Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 8 in the former category and Beethoven's late string quartets, Shostakovich's Symphony No. 10, and "maybe" Rachmaninov's Symphony No. 2 in the latter. I hope these examples give readers a sense of what I am talking about, with perhaps some examples of the two polarities springing to the minds of many. Plus, of course, there are compositions that display both polarities – probably many compositions, including the two featured on this release.

During my initial audition, the two compositions on this Hyperion release struck me as clear examples of these two polarities. But as I listened more often, and more closely, the distinction between introvert and extrovert underwent a measure of change and refinement. Note that both pieces were characterized by their composers as "concertos for orchestra" even though only the Sessions piece was given that actual title. Note also that both pieces were completed in the same year for the same occasion for the same orchestra, the 1981 Centennial of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. 

Andrzej Panufnik
Although the Sessions gets first billing on the album cover, the Panufnik is first on the disc itself, so it seems natural enough to consider it first. Andrzej Panufnik (1914-1991) was a Polish conductor and composer who became a British citizen in the 1950s. He served as chief conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra for a couple of years before stepping down to devote full time to composition. In the liner notes, he says of Sinfonia Votiva (his Symphony No. 8) that "the work is an abstract work without any programmatic content.. It nevertheless carries a spiritual and patriotic message. It is a votive offering to the miraculous icon of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa in my native Poland. This famous Madonna is said to have been painted by St. Luke on a piece of cypress wood used as a table top by the Holy Family in Nazareth... My Sinfonia Votiva is a personal offering, profoundly influenced by my deeply felt concern over the events that were taking place in Poland throughout the period of its composition. By chance I started work on this Symphony in August 1980 when the shipyard workers in Gdansk had the courage to strike in the cause of justice and human dignity. For the whole year that I took to write this work Poland was in turmoil, and I completed the symphony as the men, women and children of Poland began a series of desperate hunger marches… As well as expressing my patriotic and spiritual feelings, the symphony is intended to show off the full splendour of the Boston Symphony Orchestra not only as an ensemble but as an assembly of brilliant individuals. Although the work is symphonic in structure it may also be regarded as a 'Concerto for Orchestra,' allowing the players to show not only their technical skill but also their expressive and poetic qualities."

Although I do not have quite the level of disdain for live orchestral recordings that JJP has, I do share his preference for "studio" recordings. The liner notes explain that the first performance of Sinfonia Votiva "took place on January 28, 1982 in Boston's Symphony Hall and was repeated on the 29th and 30th, with the recording session taking place in the presence of the composer on the 30th, prior to the concert performance on that day." (It turns out that the work was revised in 1984; however, I was not able to track down the extent of that revision). The lack of audience noise that would have been present in a live recording session means that the quiet opening measures, scored for flute, celeste, then woodwinds, have the sound of a chamber piece taking place in a large hall. At one point there is a nice contribution by the bass clarinet (my old instrument!) and then later we finally hear some strings, especially cello, then harp. The engineers capture the sound of these instruments in the space and ambience of the hall, presenting the listener with an engaging sonic portrait that contributes to the "draw you in" aspect of the composition.

Not until about eight minutes have gone by do the brass enter, featuring the horn, as the music becomes more symphonic sounding, less like chamber music, but not until about the 11-minute mark does the music actually become loud. There is some more quiet, some more loud, and then it is on to the second movement, which starts much more exuberantly led off by brass and percussion. There is some agitated pawing by the strings, with the lower brass making their presence felt, especially the trombone. Woodwinds take over for a while, then the brass return, with the symphony building in expressive and sonic intensity toward its frenetic brass and percussion ending.

From the perspective of the two types of music, the first movement draws you in, the second reaches right out and grabs you. At first listen, it is a composition that struck me as quite introverted overall, largely because of that intriguing first movement. That characterization lasted throughout several more listening sessions, but then I began to appreciate the second movement more and more, making the piece as a whole harder to label. All in all, Sinfonia Votiva is a fascinating composition that has been recorded exceptionally well. It is a piece to which I plan to return, both for musical enjoyment and sonic stimulation. It may not be as "introverted" overall as I first believed, but it still really draws me in, something I would expect it to do for many listeners. 

Roger Sessions
Roger Sessions (1896-1085) was an American composer who started studying music at Harvard at the tender age of 14, graduating at 18 and then continuing his studies at Yale. He then taught at Smith College before traveling in Europe for several years, where he wrote his first major compositions. He then returned to the United States, pursuing an academic career at UC Berkeley, Princeton, Harvard, and Juilliard. During his career he was awarded two Pulitzer Prizes, the first in 1974 for his overall achievements as an American composer and the second in 1982 for the composition featured on this CD, his Concerto for Orchestra. Of this composition, Sessions wrote in his liner note comments that it "represents, first of all, an expression of gratitude for all that the Boston Symphony Orchestra has meant to me since I first heard it almost exactly seventy years ago. At that time I was fourteen years old… Later, beginning in 1927, the Boston Symphony gave me a number of memorable performances of my own music, two of which (the First Symphony in 1927, and the Third in 1957, the latter composed for the orchestra's seventy-fifth anniversary) were premieres. I have often said that the orchestral sound of the Boston Symphony as I first heard it impressed itself upon my musical memory and strongly affected my own style of orchestral writing. In this Concerto I wished to pay tribute not only to the orchestra as a whole but also to its various groups."

On first listen, two things were immediately apparent to me. First, this was a brash, in-your-face piece, clearly on the extrovert end of the spectrum. Second, it was, even to my hardly conservative ears, pretty much unlistenable. Pulitzer Prize or not, I really did not like it. In fact, I kind of hated it, and had no desire to ever listen to it again. Now what? I had found the Panufnik quite appealing, and wanted to review and recommend it, but what was I to do about its disc mate? Could I bring myself to recommend a CD containing two compositions when one of them was virtually unlistenable? Not sure of what to do or how to write such a bifurcated review, I put the CD aside and reviewed another release instead. In other words, I stalled.

Having bought myself some time, I hunkered down and listened a couple more times, the second time jotting down some new notes. In doing so, I began to realize that the piece was not entirely a lot of unpleasant noise. I was relieved to think that although I still did not really like the piece, at least I now had some notes that would allow me to say something other than it was loud, in-your-face, and pretty much something I would never really want to listen to again. I still did not feel quite settled about how I could frame such a review, so I did not start writing right away. I put off writing for a couple more days, then finally got started on my review of the CD, first laying out a couple of preliminary paragraphs and then some draft material on the Panufnik. Finally the time had arrived when I should be able to bang out some quick, mostly dismissive paragraphs about the Sessions and then the review would be done except for some final editing and proofing. Hooray!

At that juncture, just as I was finally ready to face up to the unpleasant task of writing commentary on a piece that I did not like, a miracle occurred. My notes on the Concerto for Orchestra had disappeared! I looked everywhere it seemed that they could possibly be, but to no avail. Now what?

Why do I consider losing my listening notes a miracle and not a disaster? Because it forced me to do what I had needed to do all along, to sit down and listen to the piece intently a few more times. As I did so, I found myself actually beginning to appreciate what Sessions had produced here, a true Concerto for Orchestra, a composition designed to let the players of the Boston Symphony Orchestra strut their stuff. The brash opening measures are followed by a meandering melody of sorts. Not Mozartean by any means, but not dissonant, not random. Plenty of engaged playing by the brass, winds, and percussion. From brash to beguiling, the music shifts into a quiet interlude, with a beautiful bit of playing by the clarinet. How had I missed that previously? My notes speak of a magical moment about four minutes in featuring woodwinds, another at around the 7:20 point, with winds and horn, then some appealing sounds from the lower strings, and another touch of magic featuring horn and flute at around 9:30. Near the ending there is a return to the  brash brass and percussion sound of the opening, but at the very end, the sound just fades into silence. "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent." (Wittgentstein)

In the end, then, I found the Sessions Concerto for Orchestra to be a piece to which I can imagine returning to from time to time. No, I would not rank it as one of my favorites, but I certainly do not find it virtually unlistenable anymore. For me, an extroverted piece that at first pushed me away while trying to reach out to me wound up drawing me in. On the other hand, I can imagine many classical music lovers who truly would be pushed away, vowing never to return to such an unlistenable composition. Please note: I do not intend even the slightest disrespect or condescension toward such listeners. De gustibus non disputandum est.

Overall, then, I recommend this CD highly, but not to everyone. The musical content is stimulating, worthy of audition by a wider audience, and the disc is exceedingly well engineered. The recorded sound showcases the talents of a magnificent orchestra and conductor at a very special moment in their history. On the minus side, the more modern style of music will not appeal to a wide audience, and the CD contains less than 40 minutes of music, or about half the program that could have been presented. Should any music lovers reading this review have any experience with this recording (which, after all, has now been on the market for nearly 40 years), I would certainly love to read your comments, be they positive or negative.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa