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François ROSSÉ (b. 1945)
Double Croixsens

Ost-Atem (1992) [12:56]
Nihsi (1991) [4:42]
Scriu Numele Tǎu (1992) [3:55]
Arianna (1992) [1:13]
Piano-Center (1989) [2:17]
Handgelöbnis (1997) [5:55]
La Frêne Égaré (1979) [13:10]
6ème Sonate (1996) [10:00]
Radek Knop (piano and saxophones)
rec. Studio ALFEE, Paris (saxophone works), and Conservatoire Henri Duparc, Tarbes (piano works), 2002
QUANTUM QM7025 [54:08] 


Experience Classicsonline

The French composer Fran
çois Rossé has become a prominent figure over the years, particularly in the area of expanded techniques for woodwind instruments. This Quantum disc finds the fearless Radek Knop playing a program of Rossé’s works for various saxophones, as well as for piano. The world of modern academic music is certainly prone to pretension, but Rossé’s music works on its own terms, even if the descriptions of it in the program notes for this disc (in French only) often sound overblown. 

Ost-Atem (“East-Breath”) starts the disc off with a modernist swirl of extended saxophone techniques, concrete sounds and electronic graffiti. It would have more of a cool, weird, late-night cachet to it if the composer didn’t insist in the program notes that the musical language is concentrated and coherent, but then wander off into some posturing about “the increasingly oppressive question of identity” and then something about vacuums. Sometimes composers’ comments help, and then sometimes they don’t. Ignoring Rossé’s conceptual distractions, however, this is quite interesting and adventurous music, which justifies the attention Rossé has garnered from performing musicians. 

The second track, Nihsi, is a piano solo work which starts calmly, only to be torn apart by destructive gestures, such as a recurrent repeated-note figure, which seek to destabilize the serene harmonic base. A middle-section of restless energy is built around manically repeated notes, though even there, the foundation can’t be shattered. Finally, the opposites join, the foundation losing its heaviness, and the disruptive elements begin playing around the harmonized notes like sparks above a fire. A lot of gestural music of the last 50 years can be dismissed as experiments where the chemistry never ignited, but there’s always room on my shelves for music like Nihsi, which captures a miniature but nonetheless quite profound chemical reaction. Impressive, too, that the unity of Rossé’s style and Knop’s realization of it makes the transfer from saxophone to piano satisfying. My French is limited, so I can’t make out all of Rossé’s program note, but I gather that the title is a play on “nih” from nihilism, and “si” the French term for the note B natural (and also the French word for “if”), which is the agent provocateur in the piece. 

Knop goes to the soprano saxophone for Scriu Numele Tǎu and Arianna. The first riffs on Eastern-European style grace-notes and roulades, combining them quite naturally with modernist gestures and pushing them to dramatic heights. The second, a very short piece, is nonetheless full of incident, including short, crisp notes made with the help of clicking keys. 

Piano-Center, is a short, athletic workout which includes vocalisms from the pianist as well as violent volleys of notes, before settling down to a quieter close. Rossé’s note for the more recent and much more individual Handgelöbnis (“Hand Vow”) talks about the pianist’s hand sculpting the horizon, which is great way to describe this dramatic narrative, which can go from punchy to ethereal and back in just seconds. It earns its quiet moments after short but intense battles, with an uneasy peace reigning at the end. Rossé displays good sense on how far to push the abrasive material. A little of that kind of gesturing can make a piece of music vital. Too much, however, can make it annoying and unrewarding. Rossé knows where that line is, making this more accessible music than most of what has come out of universities and colleges around the world in the last 25 years.

The only alto saxophone solo on the album, Le Frêne Égaré (“The Lost Ash”) is nonetheless the longest work here, at over 13 minutes, and is Rossé’s greatest hit, the one where he established a new, experimental envelope for the classical saxophone, and made a name for himself internationally. Dating from 1979, it is the oldest piece here, and reflects its time, when atonal and gestural music held full sway in academic circles. Indeed, the piece is both a tour de force and a catalogue of experimental techniques, including blowing, overblowing, harmonics, clicking of keys, and more. Summarizing the experiments of the 1960s and 70s and adding Rossé’s own innovations, the piece stands as the keystone in the arch between the mid-twentieth century avant-garde and Rossé’s freer, less dogmatic recent works. Particularly Ost-Atem sounds like the achievement of a vision the composer was trying to capture by using every trick in the book in Le Frêne Égaré.

Rossé appears to have been concentrating more on piano in recent years, including a series of piano sonatas. This disc closes with the Sixth Sonata, dating from 1996, and subtitled “Wesengesang” (“Nature Singing”). It starts quietly but powerfully with a steadily rising chromatic scale pattern over tolled notes in the bass. Soon more scale fragments join the first, and mid-range rhythmic patterns and grace notes proliferate. As the mass of notes rises higher, it takes on a transcendental feel, ecstatically rising and growing in volume, still over a bass pedal point. Near the middle of the piece, the scales have become encrusted with so many extra notes, they disappear in a glittering constellation of high tones. Two-thirds of the way through, the bass stops tolling as the swarm of notes climbs into the extreme high register of the piano. The tones coalesce into radiant clusters, which cause harmonics to ring out sympathetically below them as the piano’s pedal is held down. After a series of such exultant rings, the pedal is let up and one crisp cluster closes the sonata. The sonata’s ten minutes seem to pass in a breath, and its evolving structure makes it a worthy modern successor to Scriabin’s Vers la flamme. 

Avant-garde saxophone enthusiasts will want this disc for those pieces, but I recommend it to more general listeners with a tolerance for modernism, because Rossé has a way of vaulting over the clichés and onto an expressive plane in the Sixth Sonata, Nihsi and Ost-Atem. Knop’s performances are assured and everything is recorded in clear, attractive, close-up sound.

Mark Sebastian Jordan


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