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In Search Of Freedom
Kurt WEILL (1900-1950)
Canon Song [2:32]
Dmitry SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
String Quartet op.110, no.8 [19:52]
Arvo PÄRT (b.1935)
Fratres [10:30]*
Erwin SCHULHOFF (1894-1942)
Five pieces for string quartet [13:52]
Songs from The Threepenny Opera [7:44]
Hanns EISLER (1898-1962)
Orchestral Suite No.6 [11:38]
Arrangements: Shostakovich arr. Peter Vigh, Schulhoff arr. Peter Vigh, Weill arr. John Harle/Peter Vigh, Eisler arr. Christoph Enzel
Berlage Saxophone Quartet: Lars Niederstrasser (soprano saxophone), Peter Vigh (alto saxophone), Kirstin Niederstrasser (tenor saxophone), Eva van Grinsven (baritone saxophone) with Vineta Sareika (violin)*
rec. November 2016, Konzerthaus der Abtei Marienmünster, Germany
MDG 903 1999-6 SACD [66:07]

Transcriptions of music to be played by instruments other than those the music was written for don’t always work, but here’s a disc that proves that sometimes it can lead to a really enjoyable experience. It would never occur to most of us that transcribing for the majority of the saxophone family could possibly work but it really does. In the cases of Weill and Eisler these instruments, today almost always associated with jazz, bring out the whiff of decadence that imbued life in immediate pre-war Germany as shown so successfully in the film Cabaret. All three of the works by these two composers stand up extremely well to these transcriptions and help us to hear them in a new way.

It was the results of the bombing of Dresden that so affected Shostakovich on a visit there post war and drove him to write his 8th string quartet, though it is said there is a sub-text; it was later transcribed for orchestra by his friend Rudolf Barshai to become a chamber symphony. In this case the saxes manage to inject a feeling of pathos that is absolutely in keeping with the sombre nature of the work. In the second movement they also manage perfectly to convey a manic sense of urgency.

Arvo Pärt’s Fratres, however, has been transcribed so many times by the composer himself for a whole hoard of different groups of instruments, many quite surprising, meaning that there is a kind of logic in exploring the possibilities of what saxophones can bring to the mix. It is interesting that the Berlage Quartet felt that in this case it needed the addition of a violin as a kind of anchor playing the repeated phrases and the intricate and plaintive melodies while the saxes are employed like a string quartet to make the powerful statements and the contrast is highly successful.

When we come to the Five pieces for string quartet by Erwin Schulhoff we find a composer who embraced the ever-growing popularity of jazz in his music. Perhaps as a Jew and a committed communist he had the same feeling of being outside society as did the black jazz musicians for whom jazz was such a potent expression of their collective experience. This makes the saxophone transcription so right for the music, in the same way as it does for both the Weill and Eisler (another Jewish communist) who both also used jazz idioms in their pieces.

The album’s title In search of Freedom is also significant since all the composers were searching for it and in the cases of Weill, Eisler and Pärt this inevitably led to their emigrating, while sadly Schulhoff was in the process of doing so too but was captured before he could cross the border out of Czechoslovakia and died in a prison camp. Shostakovich as is well known did his best to search for freedom within his music. In addition I feel that to some extent the Berlage Quartet are doing the same in seeking a freedom of expression with their transcriptions; a much easier but nevertheless telling aim.

I cannot imagine there will be anyone who does not respond positively to this extremely enjoyable disc; it has fun and sadness in equal measure and is a welcome change in amongst the plethora of discs that are released on a continuing basis. The musicians are all masters (and mistresses) of their craft and I shall await their next venture with anticipation.

Steve Arloff



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