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CD: Naxos Direct

Phonetasy
Anders NILSSON (b.1956)
Phonetasy for Saxophone Quartet (2008) [10:01]
Niklas BREMAN (b.1966)
Dinkum Thinkum II for Saxophone Quartet (2005/2007) [6:07]
Gunnar JANSSON (b.1944)
Saxophone Quartet no.1 (1996) [18:12]
Fredrik SÖDERBERG (b.1966)
Ocellatus for Saxophone Quartet and Percussion (2000) [5:27]
Marie SAMUELSSON (b.1956)
Siren for Saxophone Quartet (1996) [6:51]
Jan LEVANDER (b.1959)
Nisse (George) for Saxophone Quartet (1999/2009) [19:43]
Lullaby to Katja Marie for Saxophone Quartet and Percussion (1999) [3:27]
Swedish Saxophone Quartet 'Rollin' Phones' (Tove Nyland (soprano saxophone); Kristin Uglar (alto saxophone); Helena Friman (tenor saxophone); Neta Norén (baritone saxophone); Daniel Saur (percussion))
rec. Stockholm, December 2009 and June 2010. DDD
PHONO SUECIA PSCD187 [70:11] 

Experience Classicsonline


Phonetasy by the Rollin' Phones on Phono Suecia - the over-zealous work of a trendy marketing phonatic? Be that as it may, what lies beneath the uncommunicative, nay miscommunicative, CD cover is a wealth of intriguing, sometimes excellent music.
 
There will be those who will never listen to saxophone quartets on principle - the principle being, presumably, that they are bound to sound jazzy, muzak-like or plain unpleasant. Yet a lot can be achieved with a soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxophone - the higher registers can sound uncannily like clarinets and oboes, the lower registers bassoon-like - especially in the hands (and mouths) of the masterly Swedish Saxophone Quartet a.k.a. the Rollin' Phones, who have been going strong since 1986. And to their credit, all the works on the disc have been commissioned by them over the last fifteen years or so.
 
Anders Nilsson's Phonetasy is a good choice to open the programme. It is inventive, varied and marvellously lyrical, with many moments of real beauty. It is a hard work to follow, and Niklas Breman's Dinkum Thinkum II is probably the worst choice. The title comes, as it happens, from the name of a machine, in a story by Robert Heinlein, that starts to think and ask existential questions. There is a deliberately strong rhythmic roboticness to this piece which, however, starts to sound repetitive and wearying by the second hearing.
 
The Saxophone Quartet no.1 by Gunnar Jansson, the oldest featured composer - and probably the only one to have written a saxophone sextet! - is a straightforwardly attractive work, as traditional as a quartet for saxophones written in the 1990s can be. Plenty of ideas, plenty of strong melodies and harmonies, a satisfying whole.
 
Fredrik Söderberg describes the inspiration for his Ocellatus as "fish, a bit of jazz and a little Philip Glass": if nothing else, curiosity should attract listeners. Ocellatus is a type of fish with a strange rutting ritual involving the burial of mollusc shells, and this Söderberg somehow attempts to capture in his music, with the help of "two or three deliberately monotonous themes" (hence, presumably, the Philip Glass reference). This piece was actually commissioned by the Rollin' Phones themselves in 2001, and is much more action-packed and worthwhile than it Söderberg's description suggests, with the various percussion sounds adding an extra dimension - Söderberg really does succeed in evoking the peculiar seabed shenanigans of ocellatus.
 
Continuing the watery theme, the Siren of Marie Samuelsson's work is of the nymph variety, with the original idea being that the baritone would represent the ship's foghorn and the other three instruments the sirens, bewitching and luring. Samuelsson changed her mind about this idea during composition, but listening to the music it is hard not to picture such a scene. All four saxes play leggiero throughout, lending the piece a fog-bound, mesmerising feel.
 
Jan Levander is represented by two works, though Lullaby to Katja Marie is little over three minutes long. He wrote this for his two-year-old daughter, and describes the piece as "a kind of game in which you have to follow the melody through the different sizes of saxophone." Augmented by some light percussion, this is a tuneful little work, easy on the ears of a youngster about to nod off. The same cannot be said about Levander's other work, Nisse (George), also for quartet and percussion, which is both the most modernistic work, and the most postmodernist, and the jazziest, on the disc! According to the composer, the five movements can be played in any order, with various other leeways for the performers, the idea being that each performance should be unique. The Rollin' Phones, who commissioned the work in 2001, play the five sections A (Back), B (Bottom), C (One Side), D (Front), E (Other Side) here in the order A, E, D, C, B, which means it starts off well - for those who enjoy expressionistic music, at least - and then more or less gets worse as the work progresses. A and E and C are the modernist pieces, D begins Kurt Weillishly but soon turns to the clichés of jazz funk, with an over-the-top drum presence, and B, said by Levander to have a "hiphop beat", has even more tediously repetitive jazz/ethnic drumming.
 
The recording quality in the soundproof studio is excellent, with the saxophones ideally balanced.
 
The booklet is also excellent - glossy pages, photos, informative and varied notes, including a short interview with Neta Norén, commentaries on each piece by their composers, brief but informative biographies on the Quartet and each of the composers, full track information - and all this in a clear font on a clean background.
 
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