are not as rare as you may think; the earliest was headed by
Eduard Lefèbvre (1834-1911), a former soloist with the Sousa
band. Two notable European ensembles were formed by Paris Conservatoire
professors Marcel Mule in 1928 and Daniel Deffayet in 1953.
Of the more recent groups the Raschèr Saxophone Quartet – which
commissioned the Glass piece played here – is probably one of
the best known.
Formed in 1994,
the Tetraphonics Saxophone Quartet is a truly diverse band,
made up of freelance musicians who play in various orchestras
across Germany. Theirs is the classic sax line-up of soprano
(B flat), alto (E flat), tenor (B flat) and baritone (E flat),
the different characters of which are explored in Glass’s four-movement
The repeated rhythmic
patterns of the first movement, typical of Glass and the other
so-called minimalists, contain some complex and concentrated
music that is superbly shaped and articulated. The mood may
seem a touch melancholic but Glass manages to create pulses
of sound that constantly evolve, apparently reinventing themselves
as the music progresses.
The baritone sax
is more prominent in the robust second movement but again I
was struck by how Glass manages to build so much variety from
such basic rhythmic blocks. The recording is ideally balanced,
each instrument well captured in a generally clear and warm
acoustic. Indeed, the lower notes have a marvellous throaty
quality, the higher registers crisp and clear.
By contrast the
third movement is more muted, the range narrower but still with
an astonishing display of instrumental shading. The last – and
shortest – movement has a strong jazz flavour. Despite the repetitions
Glass gives this music an improvisatory feel, with each instrument
allowed a degree of embellishment to add to the effect. Altogether
very engaging and expertly played.
When it comes to
jazz Frank Reinshagen has all the right credentials, having
won the first WDR Jazz Prize in 2004. The aphoristic Invitation
- it lasts just over five minutes - is based on a religious/philosophical
poem by the Canadian Oriah Mountain Dreamer. It shares some
of the repetitive elements of the Glass Concerto - a
plaintive falling figure permeates the whole piece - but there
is a starkness that sets it apart from the earlier work. Perhaps
Reinshagen doesn’t quite convey the raw intensity of the poem
– brief excerpts are given in the booklet – but then it is a
very short, highly concentrated piece. There’s no doubt Glass
has the expressive edge, producing a much wider and more vibrant
range of moods and colours.
Thompson also acknowledges her debt to jazz musicians, particularly
Duke Ellington and John Coltrane. Her saxophone quartet, premiered
in 2002, is in six movements, each given over to a specific
colour: ‘black’; ‘red’; ‘blue – cool’; ‘green’; ‘yellow – butterflies’;
and ‘white – peace’. ‘Black’ opens with a series of widely spaced
chords and glissandi, very different from either of the pieces
we’ve heard so far. At first this music sounds disorienting,
abrasive, but it quickly grabs the attention and doesn’t let
As the title implies
this is bleak music indeed but the next one, ‘red’, is even
more of a shock with its screams of rage over restless bass
lines. That same broken style gives way to a semblance of rhythm
but this is clearly music of considerable angst and upset
that modulates to a less fragmented and more melancholic or
bluesy ‘blue – cool’. Indeed, there are several moments when
this movement sounds uncannily like Gershwin’s Rhapsody in
Blue. The players respond to the ever-changing demands of
the score and have no difficulty with the music’s more virtuosic
– and ungrateful – passages. Remarkably, the sometimes very
fast vibrato and glissandi Thompson calls for don’t faze them
‘Green’ is the most
astonishing movement of all, opening with a most evocative chiming
motif. I can’t recall saxophones ever sounding this strange,
disembodied even. Clearly Thompson has a real grasp of the instruments’
expressive possibilities – and it shows. At 4:05 that other-worldly
figure returns with added embellishments above and below. Hugely
impressive, both as a piece and as a performance.
The fast vibrato
that permeates ‘yellow – butterflies’ makes for an altogether
sunnier mood. Time and time again I was reminded of Gershwin,
even in the final movement ‘white – peace’. There is a new plainness
here, a simplicity that conceals some beautifully sustained
and nuanced playing. The sheer concentration and voicing skills
of these players is simply astounding and the exemplary recording
complements them at every turn.
by the Czech Zdenek Lukáš is closer to Thompson than Glass in
style but it has an easy, more mellifluous character that is
most appealing. The solos sound glorious in this recording,
surely as faithful a rendition of the sax as you’ll ever hear.
Once again Super Audio adds that elusive ‘tingle’, that extra
degree of tangibility, to the music. That said the CD layer
is pretty convincing too, coping well with the saxophones’ more
extreme registers (just listen to those earthy baritone blasts
in the Rondo).
The Bach – billed
as a ‘bonus track’ – is a pleasing, if lightweight, encore to
an otherwise admirable collection. Yes it’s deftly played and
light on its feet but really it’s a stroll in the park compared
with the other pieces on the disc.
The CD comes in
a cardboard gatefold case with the booklet glued in. It’s a
perfectly serviceable arrangement but a tad awkward when trying
to read the notes (which are clearly and legibly presented at
least). Adventurous listeners and sax fiends will surely welcome
this stimulating disc; even the more timorous should find plenty
to enjoy as well.
Now if only I hadn’t
already chosen my six discs of the year....