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Reflections of France
Roger BOUTRY (b. 1932)
Divertimento (1964) [9:36]
Jean FRANÇAIX (1912-1997)
Cinque danses exotiques (1962) [7:10]
Eugène BOZZA (1905-1991)
Aria (1936) [3:49]
Étude 12 from 12 études-caprices (1944) [3:18]
Alfred DESENCLOS (1912-1971)
Prélude, cadence et finale (1956) [11:59]
Robert PLANEL (1908-1994)
Prélude et saltarelle (1957) [7:43]
Darius MILHAUD (1892-1974)
Scaramouche (1939) [10:00]
Eugène BOZZA (1905-1991)
Improvisation et caprice (1944) [3:18]
Gabriel GROVLEZ (1879-1944)
Sarabande et allegro (1962) [5:29]
André JOLIVET (1905-1974)
Fantasie impromptu (1953) [3:42]
Christian Forshaw (saxophone)
Stephen De Pledge (piano)
rec. 11-13 December 2007, Wyastone Hall, Monmouth, UK
Experience Classicsonline

In an age of instant downloads and the waning influence of major record labels it’s hardly surprising that more and more artists are going solo. That way they can decide what to record and, most important, they can take control of their own marketing, Pianists Joanna McGregor and the Labèque sisters  have done it with SoundCircus and KML respectively, and now Yorkshire-born saxophonist Christian Forshaw has taken the plunge with Integra Records. The latter’s catalogue is small – Reflections of France is only their third disc – but at least it’s not all run-of-the-mill repertoire.
Forshaw’s first two discs – Sanctuary and Renouncement – have certainly caught the public ear, both making it onto Amazon’s classical chart. I must confess I don’t care much for such rankings but they must be very reassuring for the artists involved. It’s a business after all, and Integra are savvy enough to offer downloads via iTunes and CD Baby as well.
This 21st-century approach is carried through to Integra’s slick, contemporary-looking website and cover-art design. And it doesn’t stop there; the opening bars of the first track are executed with the same boldness and vigour, qualities that dominate the entire collection. Some listeners may feel the sax is much too close for comfort and that the piano is too distant. In spite of that one adjusts to the balance quickly enough.
Roger Boutry, who studied with Nadia Boulanger and Marguerite Long, has penned a delightful Divertimento that overflows with wit and general joie de vivre. Technically Forshaw is no slouch either, coping admirably with the rhythm and reach of the piece, especially in the outer movements that frame a surprisingly soulful Andante. An encouraging start, but even at this stage I craved a bit more colour and character. The bright, rather shallow, recording is partly to blame for this, although Forshaw’s playing also sounds monochromatic at times.
In Jean Françaix’s Cinque danses exotiques the sax player certainly gets to show off his skill at phrasing and articulation. After the restless syncopation of ‘Pombiche’ – a South American dance based on the Merengue – Forshaw gives us a seductive little Brazilian number called ‘Baião’. Plenty of languor here, the piano providing the repetitive figures on which the dance is based. Short but sweet, as is the ensuing ‘Samba lente’. The players are reasonably well blended, although the sax sounds a little unsteady at the start of ‘Merengue’.
On the whole, though, Forshaw’s approach to these dances is too unyielding. Some might argue that’s the composer’s problem – Europeans don’t ‘get’ these elusive rhythms – but anyone who has heard Bernstein conducting Milhaud will beg to differ. No such issues with Eugène Bozza’s Aria, which is cool, cultivated and beautifully voiced. There is a formal – somewhat steely – elegance to the piece that suits Forshaw style very well. Ditto the more florid writing of the study that follows. There is a strong pedagogic element here, in which case Forshaw proves to be a star pupil. His dexterity and evenness of tone are impressive, the breathy lower notes a welcome antidote to the rather chaste little Aria.
Alfred Desenclos’s Prélude, cadence et finale is one of the more expansive pieces on this disc. Forshaw’s alto sax rambles and rhapsodises to great effect in the first movement, bracketed by some equally arresting interjections from his pianist. This is concentrated stuff, a blend of intellectual rigour and dreamy romance. And although Robert Planel’s mellifluous Prélude et saltarelle has a lower octane rating it does draw some transported playing from Forshaw. There are moments of legato-style loveliness here, and the concluding Saltarella brings the piece to a spirited close.
Despite these dazzling displays I felt a creeping sense of dissatisfaction. Where are the the saxophone’s multitudinous colours and textures? Just sample the Tetraphonics disc of 20th-century sax quartets (see review) and you’re in another sound-world entirely. After that Forshaw’s Scaramouche sounds brittle and hard edged, very different from the jaunt and jangle of Pekka Savijoki’s version on BIS (CD209). The latter’s reedier sax speaks with a genuine French accent and, more important, the Finn finds an elasticity of rhythm that is hard to resist. Ditto his Cinq danses exotiques, which offer a whole new range of instrumental colours and rhythmic possibilities, ranging from an exhilarating ‘Pombiche’ through to a wonderfully jazzy ‘Merengue’.
I’m afraid hearing Savijoki’s idiomatic performances popped my last balloon. Not even Bozza’s Improvisation et caprice and the singing qualities of Gabriel Grovlez’s Sarabande et allegro could get me back in the party mood. As for André Jolivet’s crystalline Fantasie impromptu, it’s another of those bravura pieces that sounds much too relentless in Forshaw’s hands. As always the close, almost aggressive, recording does the music no favours.
Starting your own record label is a bit like vanity publishing, and carries with it the same risks. For instance, where are the checks and balances, the other points of view that artists need to hear from time to time?  I’m not suggesting that’s necessarily  the case here, but I sensed the playing – and recording – would have benefited from a little more creative rigour and imagination, the kind of input that artists themselves aren’t best placed to provide. Without this there are apt to be too many compromises, which might explain why the Labèques’ Ravel disc was such a disappointment – see review.
And when you’re out on your own promotion can so easily seem like self-promotion. Yes, the music is what matters, but when the CD booklet contains not one but three full-page portraits of the artist and not a single word about the music one has to ask where Forshaw’s priorities lie.
Dazzling technique, but seek out Pekka Savijoki if you want to hear this music played with real punch and personality.
Dan Morgan


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