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The Invitation: Saxophone Quartets of the 20th Century
Philip GLASS (b. 1937)
Concerto for saxophone quartet (1995) [22:44]
Frank REINSHAGEN (b. 1961)
The Invitation (2002) [5:05]
Barbara THOMPSON (b. 1944)
Saxophone Quartet No. 2 ‘From darkness into light’ in six movements (2002) [26:15]
Zdenek LUKÁŠ (b. 1928)
Rondo per 4 sassofoni (1970) [9:48]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Fugue No. 20 in A minor à 4 voci BWV 865, The Well-tempered Clavier Vol. I [3:47]
Tetraphonics Saxophone Quartet: (Steffen Haß (soprano saxophone); Elmar Frey (alto saxophone);Volker Ax (tenor saxophone); Richmond Mays (baritone saxophone)
rec. 26, 28-29 September, 26-28 October 2005, Deutschlandfunk Kammermusiksaal, Köln
CYBELE RECORDS 261.001 [67:41]


Saxophone quartets 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 Concerto. 

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.

British-born Barbara 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 go.

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 either.

‘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.

The Rondo 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....

Dan Morgan




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