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For many years, American Civil War veteran, amateur musician and philanthropist Major Henry Lee Higginson dreamed of founding a great and permanent orchestra in his home town of Boston, Massachusetts. His vision became reality in the spring of 1881 and on 22 October in that year the inaugural concert of the Boston Symphony Orchestra took place under the direction of Georg (later Sir George) Henschel. The succeeding century saw the Boston Symphony unerringly establish its present place among the supreme half dozen orchestras in the world. Major Higginson died in 1919 and one would be very hard put indeed to conceive of a more resplendent memorial to him.
Henschel remained the Music Director for the orchestra’s first four years, until 1884. He was succeeded by German-born Wilhelm Gericke who occupied the position until 1889 when he was followed by the legendary Artur Nikisch who directed the orchestra until 1893. Then came Emil Paur (1893–1898), Gericke again (1898–1906), Karl Muck (1906–1908), Max Fiedler (1908–1912), Muck again (1912–1918, his tenure being terminated by his unfortunate arrest as an ‘enemy alien’), Henri Rabaud (1918–1919) and Pierre Monteux (1919–1924).
After the departure of Monteux the orchestra entered twenty-five year of great glory under the leadership of Serge Koussevitsky. This period being that which saw great advances in gramophone recording, the reputation of the orchestra spread throughout the world by means of the many records made for RCA. Koussevitsky retired in 1949 and was succeeded by Charles Munch who also made many records with the orchestra, and then the office passed to Erich Leinsdorf (1962–1969) and William Steinberg (1969–1972). After 1972 the reputation of the orchestra reached new heights under Seiji Ozawa.
In its time the orchestra has also had many distinguished guest conductors, among them being Ansermet, Beecham, Bernstein, Boult, (Colin) Davis, Defauw, Goossens, Kostelanetz, Malko, Mitropoulos, Paray, Reiner, Szell, Walter and Wood. In addition, many composers have had the privilege of standing before it: Arbós, Bloch, Casella, Enescu, Glazunov, Holst, Honegger, Prokofiev, Ravel, Respighi, Stravinsky, Villa-Lobos.
Symphony Hall, the orchestra’s present home and the venue in which this recording was made, was opened in 1900 and is widely regarded as one of the world’s best concert halls.
In 1931, during Koussevitsky’s tenure, the orchestra decided to celebrate its first half-century by commissioning works from a number of the leading composers of the day. It is now well known that the occasion produced a number of compositions of lasting worth, among them being Honegger’s First, Roussel’s Third, and Prokofiev’s Fourth Symphonies, Hindemith’s Concert Music, Op 50, and, perhaps the most celebrated, Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, ‘composed for the glory of God and dedicated to the Boston Symphony Orchestra on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of its existence’.
For the auspicious occasion of its 100th birthday in 1981, the Boston Symphony decided once again to invite twelve composers to write something for them, with financial help from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts through the Massachusetts Council on the Arts and Humanities. Two of the resulting works are recorded here—the Concerto for Orchestra by Roger Sessions, and the Sinfonia Votiva of Andrzej Panufnik. Among the composers invited by the orchestra in addition to those represented on this recording were Sandor Balassa, Leonard Bernstein (Divertimento for Orchestra), John Corigliano (Promenade Overture, performed by the associated Boston ‘Pops’ Orchestra), John Harbison, Leon Kirchner, Peter Lieberson, Donald Martino, and Olly Wilson. Sir Michael’s Tippett’s oratorio The Mask of Time was performed in 1984. Also from Britain, and completed and performed in the centenary year, was the Second Symphony of Peter Maxwell Davies. (The orchestra also received an extra and unlooked-for additional piece from Mr Maxwell Davies; his birthday greeting to the orchestra took the form of a fanfare for five hundred trumpets and a thousand tamtams!)
The first performances of Sessions’s Concerto for Orchestra took place in Symphony Hall on 23 and 24 October 1981. The first performance of Panufnik’s Sinfonia Votiva was given on 28 January 1982. The work was repeated on the two following days, January 29 and 30, and it was before the last of these performances that this recording was made, in the presence of the composer.
Andrzej Panufnik was born in Warsaw, PoIand, on September 24, 1914. His father was a distinguished maker of stringed instruments, and his mother, of English origin, was a violinist and composer. Music was part of the family life from the first, and young Andrzej began composing at the age of nine with a sonatina for piano. After five years of study at the State Conservatory in Warsaw, from which he graduated with distinction, he studied conducting with Felix Weingartner in Vienna. Later he pursued his studies further in Paris and London.
At the outbreak of World War II he returned to his native Warsaw and remained there throughout all of the extraordinary difficulties suffered by its inhabitants at the hands of the Nazis on the one hand and the Soviets on the other. In that atmosphere of violent opposing forces it was unsafe to attract the attention of either side, but under a pseudonym he wrote patriotic Polish songs and participated as a pianist in underground and charity concerts. The disastrous Warsaw uprising of 1944 was a personal catastrophe for Panufnik. His only brother, a member of the Polish Underground, died in the fighting, and the fires destroyed every note of his music composed up to that time. Later, Panufnik was able to reconstruct a few of those early compositions, among them a Tragic Overture which he dedicated to his brother’s memory.
After the war Panufnik obtained prestigious positions as a conductor in Cracow and Warsaw and once again began composing. The growth of Communist control of the arts in post-war Poland found Panufnik in a highly equivocal position; his music was frequently chosen to represent Poland in performances abroad, but he was attacked at home as ‘formalist’ and ‘alien to the great socialist era’. His Sinfonia Rustica, one of the major works of his Polish years, was inspired by native Polish art and based, in part, on fragments of folk themes. It would seem to be highly appropriate for a nationalistic composition. Indeed, the score was awarded First Prize in the 1949 Chopin Competition in Warsaw. But this was the time of the Stalinist crackdown on artists who were deemed to be insufficiently close to the party line, and in that same year the General Secretary of the Soviet Composers’ Union decreed ‘This work has ceased to exist’.
More and more unwilling to accept ‘official’ intervention in the creation of works of art, Panufnik finally left his homeland in July 1954. When he was ordered home after conducting a concert in Zürich, he went instead to England where he was granted political asylum and eventually became a naturalised British citizen. During his first years in England he conducted frequently and revised many of his earlier scores. For the last three decades of his life, before his death in 1991, he devoted himself almost totally to composition.
Panufnik’s approach to composition was perhaps unique in his time, when composers agonized over systems and styles. Panufnik was never a devotee of any compositional ‘system’, and his music ranges widely in mood and character, yet there is never any doubt that it is the product of a contemporary sensibility. He admired the dictum of Alexander Pope (whose poetry he has set to music and who lived—two centuries before—near Panufnik’s own home on the Thames): ‘Order is Heav’n’s first law’. Panufnik’s music is always carefully controlled from the outset, even planned in strict geometrical terms. But the precompositional plan did not become a straitjacket to the imagination; rather it provided the framework within which the artist moved with complete freedom. By imposing limitations on himself he paradoxically created the necessary precondition for a freedom of invention that still had a perceptible unity. More and more, Panufnik’s music grew from the most seemingly restricted musical ideas—often no more than a figure of three or four notes, employed exclusively but with the greatest variety of treatment to obtain an extraordinary range of textures and harmonies, from the sImplest to the most dense and complex. At the same tIme, his music seems always to have behind it an underlying ‘impulse’. His works are not, at bottom, mere abstract patterns, however striking may be the structural basis. They were composed with an expressive goal in mind—and even a moral goal. His music responded to the ethical questions of our day.
Andrzej Panufnik knew from personal experience what humankind can do at its worst; and yet his music, which has at its core a basically religious viewpoint, combines the melodic and rhythmic gestures of his native Poland with formal systems that reflect the Catholic intellectual tradition of his background, and in so doing aims to express the highest aspirations and the deepest feelings that we can know.
The Sinfonia Votiva is scored for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes and cor anglais, two clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, glockenspiel, vibraphone, tubular bells, three each of triangles, cymbals and tamtams in small, medium and large sizes, harp and strings. The composer strongly recommends doubling the harp part in the second movement with another placed on the opposite side of the platform. That arrangement was followed in this recording.
The following note on the Sinfonia Votiva was provided by the composer:
My Eighth Symphony is an abstract work without any programmatic content. It nevertheless carries a spiritual and patriotic message. It is a votive offering to the miraculous ikon 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. It was brought to Poland by way of Byzantium and is still preserved at the Monastery of Jasna Góra, which celebrated its 600th anniversary in 1982.
This picture of Our Lady of Czestochowa (as she is popularly known) is reputed to have supernatural protective powers; it has always been, and still is, the sacred symbol of Independent Poland. For many centuries she has been worshipped by the Polish people; it is to her that they offer their prayers in times of national crisis, especially when their country is under threat from the invader.
The votive offerings made as tributes to the Black Madonna include numerous works of art and objects of great value, some given by ordinary men and women of the land, others by such famous heroes as General Kazimierz Putlaski and Tadeusz Kosciuszko, who once fought bravely for American independence. 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.
Roger Huntington Sessions was born in Brooklyn, New York, on December 28, 1896. Although Brooklyn-born, his family’s roots and his own sense of ‘home’ are New England. He entered Harvard College at the age of fourteen and began subscribing to concerts of the Boston Symphony Orchestra which, as he remarks in his note on the Concerto for Orchestra printed below, had a continuing influence on his conception of orchestral sound. Already in those years he had made his commitment to music. Piano lessons, begun with his mother at the age of four, led to his first composition at twelve, and an opera, Lancelot and Elaine, the following year. It was then that he broke the news to his parents that he had decided to be a composer.
Sessions studied some harmony before his entrance into Harvard, passed the harmony examination, and enrolled in the counterpoint course under Archibald Davison. Further studies in Europe under Ravel were suggested after graduation but the year was 1914 and this was clearly out of the question. So he went instead to Yale where he worked with Horatio Parker, winning the major composition prize with the first movement of a symphony. The principal influences on Sessions’s work, though, came from Ernest Bloch—whose assistant he later became at the Cleveland Institute of Music – and the early Stravinsky ballets. Absorption of these influences led to Sessions’s first major success, incidental music to Leonid Andreyev’s drama The Black Maskers, later expanded into an orchestral suite. The success of this led to the award of several grants and prizes which enabled him to live and work for the next few years in Florence, Paris and Berlin. During this time he composed his First Symphony (different from the student work referred to above) and this was given its premiere by the Boston Symphony under Koussevitzky in 1927. Returning to the United States in 1933, he began his distinguished teaching career.
At the beginning of his career, Sessions’s music showed most clearly the influence of Stravinsky. But, very gradually, over a period of years, his work approached the twelve-tone system which he finally adopted in his late fifties (rather to his own surprise). And yet it is important to remember that the choice of ‘system’ is less significant than the musical intelligence behind it. His music has always been dense and highly active, filled with such a rich lode of detail that it cannot possibly be taken in at first hearing. Sessions himself has written: ‘I would prefer by far to write music which has something fresh to reveal at each new hearing than music which is completely self-evident the first time, and though it may remain pleasing makes no essential contribution thereafter’. At the same time, Sessions always sought ‘the long line’, a carefully planned continuity of musical gesture, built of complex interactions of tension and release that run from the beginning of the piece to the end, subordinating each detail, however attractive or striking it may be, to the shape and effect of the whole.
The Concerto for Orchestra, begun in 1979 and completed on 16 August 1981, is for large orchestra and is in three linked sections—Allegro, Largo, and Allegro maestoso. It is not at all like Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra (which was also composed for the Boston Symphony, in 1943). Instead of sharp-cut, distinct, contrasting movements and the effect of spotlights playing on different sections or members of the orchestra in turn, there is a single, intricate poetic span. There are no specifically string episodes, although when the strings do carry the burden of the argument for a few measures the effect is beautiful. They join in tuttis but otherwise seldom play all together. Divisions of the family contribute individual lines to the texture and at times support the winds with doubling or by shaping a new melody culled from the notes of various wind parts. The important thing is the substance of the music and its eloquence and variety. It is by turn festive and lyrical, playful and noble, and it ends with a hymn that fades into beauty and mystery—an unusual sonority of oboe, clarinets, horns and tuba ebbing into the silence. A few composers in the history of music have, like Sessions, been active at 85 (Schütz, Verdi, Vaughan Williams); fewer have at that age composed music on this scale, characteristic of lifelong interests and aspirations, and remaining both a kind of summation, a journey done, and a continuing voyage of exploration.
The work is scored for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes and cor anglais, two clarinets, E flat clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, xylophone, cymbals, whip, snare drum, glockenspiel, chinese drum, military drum, tambourine, triangle, tamtam, tenor drum, wood block, harp and strings. The title-page bears the following inscription: ‘Concerto for Orchestra composed in celebration of the one-hundredth anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Dedicated to Seiji Ozawa, in memory also of all his illustrious predecessors who built and maintained the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Roger Sessions 1979–81’.
The following note on the Concerto for Orchestra was provided by the composer:
This piece 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, and for four seasons I was not only a subscriber and regular attendant at the Saturday evenIng concerts, but often attended the Friday afternoon ones as well. These were my first experiences of orchestral music, aside from two or three operatic performances which I had heard. 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 on 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. Thus, in the first section, alternately playful and lyrical, the woodwinds play a very prominent role; this is followed by a slow section, introduced by a passage on the trumpet which rises from a low B through nearly two octaves to a high A flat. In this part, a solemn Largo, the brass instruments play the main role, beginning with the trombone, answered in turn by the horn and the trumpet. A contrasting middle sectIon extends the register by introducing the high woodwinds and more movement. After a climax the music of the previous Largo returns and gradually reaches the largest of the climaxes, which subsides as the trombones once more sound the A and G sharp with which the movement began. A trumpet call, a little like the one which introduced the first of the three sections, introduces the final section, which is festive in character. A short concluding statement, three phrases long, brings the piece to a quiet end.
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