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Sessions, Shapey: Piano Music / David Holzman, Et Al

Release Date: 12/11/2007 
Label:  Bridge   Catalog #: 9243   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Roger SessionsRalph Shapey
Performer:  David Holzman
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

SESSIONS Piano Sonatas: No. 1; No. 3, “Kennedy.” SHAPEY Mutations I. Mutations II. 21 Variations David Holzman (pn) BRIDGE 9243 (79:31)

This is an exceptional disc in several ways. I’ll get to the performances in a moment, but it stands out as an act of advocacy for two composers who have been out of the limelight since their deaths, and who wrote avowedly “difficult” music, almost daring audiences to appreciate Read more their stringent, demanding vision.

The more recently passed first. Ralph Shapey (1921–2002) throughout his life had a reputation as something of a terror (personal disclosure: I studied composition with him, and remained in touch with him throughout his late years; for the record, he was difficult and profane, but also deeply sensitive and generous). His most notorious act in the early 1970s was to forbid performances of his works because he felt the whole music scene was “rotten.” And the music is truly uncompromising. To get an idea of his temperament, read the titles of the two movements of Mutations II (1966): (I) “Majestic passion/of designs, movements and forces/of peace and quiet/of singing tenderness/of passion and fury”; (II) “With furious wildness, intensity, brilliance and sound/of majestic passion.”

The music is hard-edged, with motives diamond-cut, rhythms obsessive, the form a cubistic cycling of materials. Listening to these three works, from 1965, 1966, and 1978, respectively, one is struck by the enormous consistency of Shapey’s voice and technique. The music becomes somewhat more intricate and florid over the years, but the hallmarks of his style remain rock-rooted in the same sources. The music, despite its sometimes forbiddingly dissonant surface, is also consistently, near-blindingly clear . Variations sound like variations (as is the case also in both Mutations , which are basically Shapey’s personal take on variation form). The 21 Variations is one of the composer’s true masterpieces, large but concise, with the variations grouped into four movements projecting a Classical sonata form. This is extremely powerful music, and is another step in the slow reappraisal of the composer’s work that seems to be emerging.

Roger Sessions (1896–1985) is for me a tougher nut to crack. But I also gladly admit that his First Sonata from 1930 is a rare masterpiece, blending modernist density with a long, lyrical, Brahmsian sensibility. Its main theme has a genuine bittersweetness that haunts. For many, it’s an interim piece that points the way toward the composer’s true voice, found when he embraced serialism. For me, it’s just the opposite: its very stylistic “in-betweenness” is what makes it remarkable and important to the current musical scene. It may be an extravagant claim, but it strikes me as the great landmark American sonata between Ives’s “Concord” and the 1946 Carter.

The Third Sonata of 1965 is much harder for me. There are moments of incredible intensity (especially in the snowballing energy of the central second movement), as well as noble rhetoric (the work was a memorial to JFK). But ultimately, like so much of Sessions’s late work, it strikes me as trying too hard to pack too much information into its framework. There are wonderful ideas throughout, but they almost cancel one another out. The music feels clotted. I know there are many who find the composer the great Olympian voice of his generation. I can admire many of his virtues, but it’s hard for me to love this work, or even feel a deep understanding, try as I may.

Let it be said though that Sessions (or Shapey) simply couldn’t have a better advocate and interpreter than David Holzman. This disc is one that elicits the “Wow” response. The pianist has unerringly steely technique, but he has an intellect that allows him to grasp confidently the conception and structural line of this music. He clarifies everything. There are passages where the dense contrapuntal textures are so well differentiated, one might assume this was four-hand music (as an example, the fiery, overflowing explosion of Mutations II has to be heard to be believed). If there is any drawback, it is that one will not get the most tender or liquid touch from Holzman (though this does not mean the man can’t produce a pianissimo). The playing is, as I said, “steely.” But it’s a small price to pay for the passion, control, and rigor that I think admirably matches the spirit of both composers’ music.

On top of it, the pianist writes suitably challenging, intellectually chewy notes. And Bridge’s sonics are bracingly big and clear. While a little out of left field, this could be a Want List item for me come year’s end.

FANFARE: Robert Carl
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Works on This Recording

Sonata for Piano no 1 by Roger Sessions
Performer:  David Holzman (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1927-1930; USA 
Sonata for Piano no 3 "Kennedy" by Roger Sessions
Performer:  David Holzman (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1964-1965 
Mutations I by Ralph Shapey
Performer:  David Holzman (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1956; USA 
Mutations II by Ralph Shapey
Performer:  David Holzman (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1966; USA 
Variations (21) for Piano by Ralph Shapey
Performer:  David Holzman (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1978; USA 

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