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S & H Concert Review

Casken, Firsova, Ligeti, Roberts, Payne, Sciarrino, Bingham, Sulzmann Tempest Saxophone Quartet; Dimitri Murrath (viola), PLG, Purcell Room, Friday, January 9th, 2004 (CC)


On paper the juxtaposition of saxophone quartet with solo viola may seem strange, even misguided. Variety is the spice of life, though, and in the end this was a highly enjoyable if somewhat uneven event.

The young Tempest Saxophone Quartet formed at the Royal College of Music. And yes, it does consist of four separate players, despite Naomi Sullivan being listed twice in the booklet. The ensemble began with a piece by each of this year’s featured composers. John Casken’s seven-minute Nearly Distant (2000) examines how motives and ideas from an earlier work (Distant Variations, for saxophone quartet and wind orchestra) can have their potentialities further realised. Described as ‘a series of snapshots of the pre-existing work’, there was certainly a virtuosic element here within the frameworks of its explosion/stasis juxtapositions (reflecting the title). Jazz allusions (of course intimately related to the socially-accepted view of the saxophone) grow in insistence as the work progresses, although it was the sheer beauty of the slow sections that lodged in the memory.

Elena Firsova is the other of the PLG’s featured composers and her Far Away (note the neat union of titles between Casken and Firsova!) is most effective in its evocation of plaintive loneliness (the actual source of inspiration was that he composer was far from home). The closing multiphonics (which on paper looked more like a ‘trick’) actually sounded very much as part of the piece, almost like a composed disintegration.

The saxophone quartet framed the concert, providing the final two works also. Judith Bingham’s Lacemaking (a world premiere) had a distinctly ‘çool’ slant (the Tempest Saxophone Quartet loved the fugal illusions within this sound-world!) A confident compositional hand was at work. Finally, a work that really and truly came from the world of jazz - Stan Sulzmann’s Keeping the Wolf. Up-front and brightly coloured in the first and third movements, distinctly Coplandish in the second, titled ‘Figurine (for my mother)’, it was the perfect showcase for the Tempest’s talents.

So to the viola works. Belgian-born Dimitri Murrath is a virtuoso who seemingly knows no fear. Ligeti’s six-movement, twenty minute Solo Viola Sonata (1991-94) poses huge problems for the performer. By using a deliberately folk-like manner (vibrato-free), the evocation of Hungary was strong. With a warm sound and inflected with a characteristic use of micro-tones, it prepared the way for the rusticity of the second movement, ‘Loop’, replete with double-stoppings. Jaw-dropping virtuosity was the order of the day for ‘Prestissimo con sordino’ (the fourth movement) while the concluding ‘Chaconne chromatique’ was a strange mix of the yearning and the almost courtly.

A low on inspiration Wieglied by Jeremy Dale Roberts held the attention purely because of this violist’s advocacy; Anthony Payne’s Amid the Winds of Evening was strangely pointless, a lot of scrubbing but with no underlying substance. Far, far ahead (the leap into a different compositional league was very obvious) was Salvatore Sciarrino’s Tre Notturni Brillanti of 1975. All three are written entirely in harmonics, but each inhabits its own world: the first flighty and insubstantial (in a positive sense); the second featuring scratching explosions out of ppp scurryings; the third comprising elusive slitherings (including a technique of brushing the strings with the hair of the bow, thereby not producing a definite pitch).

The Sciarrino and the Ligeti were the highlights of a much-varied evening. Bravo to all concerned.

Colin Clarke



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