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French Saxophone Quartets
Pierre Max DUBOIS (1930-1995)
Quatuor pour saxophones (1955) [10:06]
Gabriel PIERNÉ (1863-1937)
Introduction et variations sur une ronde populaire (1937) [8:49]
Jean FRANÇAIX (1912-1997)
Petit quatuor pour saxophones (1935) [7:02]
Alfred DESENCLOS (1912-1971)
Quatuor pour saxophones [16:00]
Eugène BOZZA (1905-1991)
Andante et Scherzo [7:35]
Florent SCHMITT (1870-1958)
Quatuor pour saxophones Op. 102 (1941-3) [15:13]
Kenari Quartet (Bob Eason (soprano saxophone), Kyle Baldwin (alto saxophone), Corey Dundee (tenor saxophone), Steven Banks (baritone saxophone))
rec. September/October 2015, Auer Hall, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana
NAXOS 8.573549 [64:41]

Adolphe Sax was Belgian but worked in Paris and patented his instrument in 1846, whereupon it was promptly taken up by military bands, from which it later moved to jazz. The result has been that it is so closely associated with jazz that it is now rarely used in classical music, or, if so, precisely to evoke its jazz associations, such as in Berg’s Der Wein and Lulu. However, some composers have dared to use it for its own sake. British examples include Britten in the Sinfonia da Requiem and Vaughan Williams in several works. That said, it has been the French who have been the most ready to write for the instrument, with examples including Bizet, Debussy and Ravel for a start.

The French have also developed a tradition for writing for a saxophone quartet. This uses one each of the soprano, alto, tenor and baritone instruments. On this disc we have a representative group of these. It is also an opportunity to give an airing to works by some of the large number of French composers who count as second rank – not second rate — but good craftsmen who wrote worthwhile music which does not scale the heights, nor tries to. None of these works is long, which is how there is room for six of them.

The quartet by Pierre Max Dubois is what one would expect of a French work for this ensemble: it is witty, well written and in four short movements. We can hear how the saxophones can sing, define rhythmic movement and combine to make chords. The composer skilfully avoids the slight tendency of the instruments in combination to be glutinous and heavy. Dubois was a pupil of Milhaud and one can hear something of his mentor’s witty music.

Gabriel Pierné is slightly better known in the UK, and what I have heard of his music is well crafted, with a leaning towards impressionism, though without a very strong individual personality. His work begins with a slow introduction with changing harmonies and moves to a rondo with two episodes which are cheerful and bright.

Jean Françaix is also reasonably well known with his large output of light, witty and cheerful works. His Petit quatuor is what you would expect. It has its say in three short and contrasted movements.

After three basically lightweight works we have something more serious. Alfred Desenclos was a new name to me. He has a modest presence in the CD catalogue. His largest work appears to be a Requiem, which John Quinn liked and considered was ‘a worthy successor in the Fauré/Duruflé lineage and a setting that is well worth getting to know’ (review). His quartet here, the longest work on the disc, is a serious three movement piece. Listening to it I reflected that there was no reason for saxophone quartets to be confined to light and witty works, enjoyable though they are. Like the viol consort or the string quartet, the saxophone quartet is a versatile medium and deserves a wide-ranging repertoire.

Eugène Bozza was another new name to me; he was an enormously prolific composer, particularly for wind instruments. His work here is in two nicely contrasted movements, with the Andante gentle and lyrical and the Scherzo exciting and virtuosic.

Florent Schmitt is best remembered for some early works, particularly his ballet La Tragédie de Salomé though he continued composing throughout his long life. His quartet is another serious and rewarding work, opening with a particularly striking angular fugue.

The Kenari quartet is an American team, formed in 2012; this is their first recording. They play with enthusiasm, without vibrato and have taken great trouble to ensure that their tone is consistent across the four instruments. They seem very much at home with this all-French programme and I hope they will give us more. The recording was made in what sounds like a small hall, which is right for these works. The sleeve-note manages to convey a lot of information in a short space.

There are several other recordings of most of these works, but the closest comparison is with one by the Aurelia Saxophone Quartet, which contains five of the six works here, replacing the Dubois with a work by Jean Rivier. This was originally a single disc but it has now been reissued with a second disc containing transcriptions of the string quartets of Debussy, Ravel and Roussel (review). Rob Barnett liked this, but if you would like a disc only of works actually written for saxophone quartet this will do very nicely.

Stephen Barber



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