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Hilary TANN (b.1947)
Of Erthe and Air
Windhover for solo soprano saxophone [6:57]
Of Erthe and Air for flute/piccolo, saxophones and percussion [14:54]
Songs of the Cotton Grass for mezzo soprano and soprano saxophone [14:54]
Sh˘ji for flute and soprano saxophone [6:56]
Some of the Silence for saxophone quartet [9:18]
Shakkei for soprano saxophone and small orchestra [15:19]
Susan Fancher (saxophones), Erin Lesser (flute and piccolo), Gregory Beyer (percussion), Clara O’Brien (mezzo), Red Clay Saxophone Quartet, Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra/Allan McMurray
rec. no information provided

A little while back, I reviewed a fine CD of orchestral and concerted music by Hilary Tann. Here is another disc, this time devoted largely to chamber music.

Tann is a Welsh-born composer, now a distinguished academic in the USA, who also spent important formative years in Japan. I had enjoyed the freshness and rich imagination of the music on the previous disc so was keen to hear this one and compare.

A common element between the two CDs is the saxophone, for the earlier disc featured a short concerto for alto sax called ‘In the First, Spinning Place’. On the present disc, the saxophone appears, in one guise or another, in every item. The standard of playing from the young performers is nothing short of exceptional, which means that this music really does get a fair hearing. Indeed, the words of saxophonist Susan Fancher, quoted in the note, make clear the high and warm regard in which Tann and her music are held by these musicians.

The first piece, ‘Windhover’ is an unaccompanied solo for soprano saxophone – a real challenge for a composer, as this instrument has a vanishingly small solo repertoire. If anyone could inspire the creation of more pieces for what is a very beautiful medium – the instrument could often be mistaken for oboe or cor anglais – it is the brilliant Fancher, who shows a quite phenomenal tone control and flexibility of phrasing.

That is followed by the ‘title piece’, ‘Of Erthe and Air’, scored for flute, saxophone and percussion. The title is taken from an early 15th century poem by John Trevisa, and the work was written while Tann was in Japan. Hence the percussion includes traditional Japanese ‘frame drums’. The mood alternates between a meditative conversation for flute and saxophone, and more propulsive music involving the percussion. By requiring the flautist — the very fine Erin Lesser — to change between flute and piccolo, and Fancher to play both baritone and soprano saxophone, Tann is able to make use of a quite wide range of tone colours. The percussion adds an unmistakably oriental flavour, and is written for with discretion, so as not to overbalance the woodwind soloists.

I used the word ‘meditative’; and that is perhaps the prevailing impact of much of the music recorded here. There is also a certain melancholy, a sense of the ‘sadness of things’. Certainly the little ‘Songs of the Cotton Grass’ are gently mournful, dealing tenderly with the relationship between a girl and her ageing mother. Tann’s discipline in writing for such a limited palette – mezzo-soprano and soprano sax – is highly impressive. Though restrained, the songs make a strong emotional impression, and match sensitively the simple, direct words of Welsh poet Menna Elfyn.

‘Sh˘ji’, Tann explains, are sliding screens of opaque white paper, and the piece of that name on track 6 for flute and soprano sax is inspired by these characteristic features of Japanese architecture. Once more, one can only be captivated by the skill with which the composer deploys her very slender resources, allowing the music to move effortlessly — to slide, perhaps — between different types of movement and figuration.

‘Some of the Silence’ is inspired by a poem – a ‘haiku’ in this case, betraying the Japanese influence once again. This haiku, however, is not by a Japanese writer, but by New York-born John Stevenson. It runs thus: ‘… a deep gorge/some of the silence/is me.’ We hear the Red Clay Saxophone Quartet producing some splendidly glutinous tone in the legato-tongued throbbing, shifting harmonies. The slower music, often featuring a rising interval of the minor sixth, alternates with quicker passages where the instruments imitate each other closely. This is another highly successful and absorbing performance.

All terrific stuff; but I was beginning to feel as if I had had a series of Zensai (Japanese ‘hors d’oeuvres’), and in need of something a little more substantial to finish me off. Indeed I got it; the final piece, ‘Shakkei’ (Japanese ‘borrowed scenery’) is the longest work here, and also the ‘biggest’ one in terms of its forces, being a solo for soprano saxophone and chamber orchestra. The orchestra in question is the Thailand Philharmonic, whom I had never heard before, either live or on disc. They play well for their conductor Allan McMurray, and accompany the soloist – once again Susan Fancher – sympathetically.

The work is in two sections, the first starting with the soloist alone and evolving slowly and with growing intensity. Entertainingly, Tann uses her own piece of ‘borrowed scenery’ in a couple of quotations from Debussy’s ‘Nuages’ from the Three Nocturnes. The quicker section, with its sometimes raindrop-like ostinato, returns briefly to the slower opening music at the end.

This music does require a certain commitment and concentration from the listener. When it is composed as skilfully and as thoughtfully as this, and is then presented with such loving artistry, it exerts its own quiet but powerful spell. An immensely rewarding issue.

Gwyn Parry-Jones



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