Superlative Sessions

Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music

Friday, August 13 at 2:30 PM

Lenox, Massachusetts

Just about the best thing I’ve heard thus far at the 2010 Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music is a performance of Roger Sessions’ relatively late (1975) Five Pieces for Piano by Tanglewood Fellow Alexander Bernstein.

While his From My Diary, an earlier non-dodecaphonic group for solo piano, is programmed more frequently, Five Pieces is some of Sessions’ best piano writing. Dedicated to the then recently deceased composer Luigi Dallapiccola, they are dazzling works that combine harmonic rigor and abundant virtuosity with an unerring sense of pacing. While Sessions is frequently described as having a somewhat vinegary palette, these pieces contain some considerably lush verticals. They don’t linger in this energetically modernist work, but these sumptuous glancing blows help to make the piece one of my favorites in Sessions’ catalogue.

The impression that Bernstein made is far more than a glancing blow. He played these pieces with such assurance and musicality that the audience could scarcely contain themselves. What was programmed as the ‘progenitor’s piece’ on a concert of later modernists, an appetizer to a hearty main course of Babbitt, Wuorinen, and Foss, was anything but an amuse-bouche. It received a number of curtain calls and a hearty share of hoots and hollers (happily, the students here are enthusiastic supporters of one another!). If this is what Bernstein can do now with Sessions, I can’t wait to hear his Babbitt, Carter, and Boulez in a few years. Scratch that: now please!