To answer your first question: yes, the Ellipsos saxophone quartet has arranged Ravel’s Bolero for four saxophones without any cuts, and without shortening the piece drastically to take into account the fact that they only have four instruments. Yes, it works. They use their ingenuity to produce every sound you knew a saxophone could make and quite a few that you probably didn’t. I also think overdubbing is involved: otherwise how does the baritone sax play the bass part and contribute solos, too? It may not be something you put on repeat, but Bolero works this way, against all the odds.
That’s the least interesting thing on the album. There are two more Ravel transcriptions: a lovely Pavane and a truly spectacular rendition of Le Tombeau de Couperin, which leaves out only the fugue. I feel a special thrill hearing the four saxophonists attacking the finale toccata like a hungry man tackling a steak.
Then there’s Jean Françaix, the cheeriest, most amiable company in all French music (maybe), contributing yet another of his witty little confections. The Petit Quartet is just that: it’s jazzy, charming, full of cheeky Haydnesque jokes, as strongly Parisian as a perfume, and all over in eight minutes. I was not expecting the slow movement to contain one of the composer’s most hauntingly beautiful melodies. Gabriel Pierné, another underrated French composer, supplies an Introduction and Variations, a lovely - albeit rather more serious - showcase for the quartet.
The final touches come from Thierry Escaich, born in 1965, who provides two dance-themed works, Le Bal and Tango Virtuoso. The first work’s insistent rhythms and pulsating energy actually call to mind American music rather than French - La valse meets John Adams. Once again, we hear saxophones making sounds they usually don’t make. Tango Virtuoso lives up to both words of its title and is a little gem of a piece.
As for the Ellipsos Quartet, there’s a word for their performances: joy-giving. They clearly revel in the humour of Jean Françaix, they electrify Bolero and Le Tombeau with their commitment. Their arrangements, when arrangements are needed, are outrageously good. The recorded sound is perfect: ideally balanced, so that the instruments seem close but you get a feeling of the space of the concert hall, rather than of claustrophobia. This disc is pure pleasure.