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Fernande DECRUCK (1896-1954)
Pavane [4:23]
Saxophonescas (1943) [20:35]
Deux Berceuses (1935) [6:16]
Variations saxophoniques (c.1939) [17:08]
Saxofonia di camera [12:06]
Saxophonie [4:05]
Quatuor Ellipsos
rec. July 2020, Conservatoire, Champigny-sur-Marne
NOMAD MUSIC NMM088 [64:33]

It’s relatively unusual to find a whole disc devoted to the music of Fernande Breilh-Decruck (more commonly Fernande Decruck). She is usually found in anthologies of saxophone compositions, whether European or inter-war or in other contexts. This makes the focus on an hour’s worth of her pieces, some undated, from the mid-30s onwards, the more valuable.

A prize-winner at the Paris Conservatoire, where she stayed on to teach harmony – one of the students who remained grateful to her was Olivier Messiaen – it was a move to America with her husband Maurice, a double bassist who doubled saxophone and played in the Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York under Toscanini, that seems to have opened her ears to the potential of the saxophone as a soloistic presence: her own first study was the organ. Her earliest compositions coincided with the establishment of truly virtuosic classical saxophonists in France, most prominently Marcel Mule and François Combelle: jazz aficionados will remember his son Alix Combelle, a mighty presence on the Parisian jazz scene from the 30s onwards who often played with the Quintet of the Hot Club of France.

There are six works for saxophone quartet to consider from her earliest known piece for the instrument, the warm and gentle Pavane onwards. Deux Berceuses was originally written for horn quartet but re-sculpted for the saxophone. The first is not too melancholic considering it was dedicated to the Unknown Soldier. The second is refined and elegant. Saxophonescas – with a linguistic tip of the hat, one assumes, to Granados – dates from the war years and is cast in eight fragrant and contrasting movements. These descriptive pieces sport witty titles (Faunesque, Fuguesque, Histoire sans nom are just three) and have evocative, succinct and stylish profiles; there’s delicacy as well as vivacity in this enchanting set. Variations saxophoniques is an elegantly turned sequence, where rather unusually for her, one finds folksy moments, allied to very clear French textures, melancholic hues and a jovial fugue to end.

Saxofonia di camera was long thought to be lost but has reappeared in recent years, though no date of composition is ascribed in the notes. In four movements with a slow introduction, textures are clear and there are some audaciously conceived dynamics. Lightly neo-classical, this is another notable example of her elegant Gallic muse. The final piece is the brief, three-movement Saxophonie, with a songful elegance in its central movement and in its finale the only audible evidence in this selection of any jazz influence.

Quatuor Ellipsos brings this repertoire to life with lyricism and incisive technique. It has been finely recorded and the notes are to the point. If you’ve encountered her music on anthology albums and have wondered what else is out there, this is a prime candidate for your listening.

Jonathan Woolf



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