It's nice to have these two compositions paired together on a CD, as they were part of a batch of commissions made on occasion of the Boston Symphony Orchestra's 100th Anniversary, which included works by Sandor Balassa, Leonard Bernstein (Divertimento), John Corigliano, John Harbison (Symphony No. 1), Leon Kirchner, Peter Lieberson (Piano Concerto), Donald Martino, Peter Maxwell Davies (Symphony No. 2), Michael Tippett (The Mask of Time), Olly Wilson (Sinfonia) - most of them conducted, as here, by Seiji Ozawa.
Panufnik's 8th Symphony ("Sinfonia Votiva") is an endearing and original work. It strongly contrasts two movements, the first subtle and subdued with minimal melodies and sparse instrumentation supported by soft, crystalline punctuations from vibraphone, harp or celesta, and occasional and short-lived outbursts after 11 minutes, the second dramatic, agitated violent with near-cacophonous brass fanfares. The language is reasonably but not aggressively modern and very expressive. In the fascinating notes featured in the disc's booklet, Panufnik explains in detail how the composition's architecture as well as its melodic and harmonic parameters are based on a geometric figure of a a big circle containing two 8-shaped circle, themselves containing two each, and again, amounting to a total of 8 vertically positioned small circles. It is incomprehensible, but fascinating, and as Panufnik concludes, "the structure of this works should for the listener remain an unseen skeleton holding in unity the musical material" and expressing the hope that "the emotional and spiritual elements will totally dominate". They do.
It is quite fitting that the BSO should have chosen Sessions for a commission, as the composer's 3rd Symphony, which back in 1957 had signalled his full embrace of Schoenberg's twelve-tone system, had also been a BSO commission, made this time for the orchestra's 75th Anniversary (see my review of Roger Sessions: Symphonies Nos. 1, 2, 3),. Whether you'll like Sessions' 1981 Concerto for Orchestra depends very much, I think, on whether you find enjoyment in the music of Schoenberg - I do. In the 25 intervening years, Sessions' style hadn't budged very much. The mood is often dramatic and vehement, and rhythms are muscular, to the point sometimes of squareness. The melodic lines are rarely attributed to the strings and often to woodwinds and brass, whose particular, either perky and piercing or sombre and brooding timbre offsets what heart-on-sleeve lyricism they might convey. Not that the lyricism is absent, but it is stern, not the immediately graspable, heart-on-sleeve kind. The contrapuntal activity is very dense.
The information given about the recording dates is somewhat confusing. On the CD booklet's back page and on the disc's back cover the date of 30 January 1981 is given, but it must be 1982, as Sessions' Concerto was premiered on October 23, 1981 and repeated on the 24, and Panufnik's Symphony was given on January 28, 29 and 30, 1982, the recording, re the liner notes, having been made before this last performance. Other than that, excellent notes, but at 38:06 the total timing, acceptable for an LP (this is how this disc was first released, back in 1982) is way too short for a CD. So find it cheap.