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koncepcja saxophone AP0538
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Koncepcja (saxophone/piano duo)
André Waignein (1942-2015)

Deux Mouvements
William Grant Still (1895-1978)
Romance for alto saxophone and piano
Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942)
Hot-Sonate (Jazz-Sonate) for alto saxophone and piano
Marcin Kopczyński (b. 1973)
Sonata na saksofon i fortepian op. 85 …słuchając morza i lasu…
rec. 2021, Sala koncertowa Państwowej Szkoły Muzycznej I i II stopnia im. Juliusza Zarębskiego, Inowrocław, Poland
First recording (Kopczyński)

If you were to look through the impressive catalogue of over 500 works on the Acte Préalable label, it would be fair to say that the vast majority of CDs involve the piano, either as a soloist, in concertos, in chamber music, or in duos with all manner of string, woodwind, and brass instruments. I can’t recall reviewing any of their new releases that features the saxophone in a duo, so, on seeing the saxophone & piano duo Koncepcja’s new CD, it was just too good an opportunity to miss.

Koncepcja was formed in 2018 by Michał Maślak (saxophone) and Justyna Jażdżyk (piano) and, of course, there’s no prize for working out that the name simply means ‘concept’ in Polish. The saxophone was created in the early 1840s by Belgian inventor and musician, Antoine-Joseph ‘Adolphe’ Sax. While Koncepcja’s repertoire includes pieces that form the mainstay of the repertoire, they focus mainly on contemporary works as well as those bordering on popular and jazz music. There are also pieces composed especially for them, like the Sonata op. 85 by Marcin Kopczyński which ends the present CD.

Interestingly, Michał Maślak plays on an instrument from 1934, very similar in construction to the ones produced by Adolf Sax in the second half of the nineteenth-century, which Maślak uses in conjunction with a mouthpiece based on Sax’s original patent (1846). This, we are told, in the most informative CD booklet, ‘produces a rather unique sonoric effect: a warm, soft and full sound, which is rarely seen on contemporary stages’. Having now heard the CD in its entirety, I must say I agree, wholeheartedly, with this appraisal.

This new release opens with two pieces by Belgian composer, conductor, teacher, trumpeter, and musicologist, André Waignein. He was initially a self-taught youngster, under the guidance of his father, a train-worker and saxophonist in a local ensemble. Waignein continued his studies at the Royal Conservatory in Brussels and Mons, and, in his earlier years was a member of a jazz group, for which he wrote most of the arrangements. It was his composing that caused his fame to grow, and included songs, instrumental and chamber music, symphonic works, and pieces for wind orchestra – in fact over 600 compositions, of which over 300 were published, as well as being recorded on over 100 albums, under numerous different pseudonyms.

At the beginning of 1989, he was asked by his close friends, Jean Baily, Director of the Brussels Royal Conservatory, and Alain Crépin, the Conservatory’s saxophone professor, to compose something suitable for their music students. Thus, Deux Mouvements came into being – Complainte and Caprice respectively. If, like me, you’ve never heard any Waignein before, you might equally be taken back by the sheer beauty of Complainte. After the briefest piano introduction, the saxophone enters with a really haunting, expressive melody which made me think ‘French’ – Waignein, after all, hailed from the French-speaking part of Belgium – and nowhere more so than the piano’s romantic outpouring just after the start, and very reminiscent of Poulenc’s writing. It’s clearly all about melody, and its impact on the listener is considerably enhanced by Maślak’s delicate, yet rich tone, mentioned above. There is such richness in Waignein’s harmonic palette, but ne’er does one chord ever sound out of place, and while the style is overtly Romantic, there is absolutely nothing mawkish about the melodic line. I simply found it hauntingly beautiful – both the music and the performance – and hard to resist.

Caprice, by comparison features rapid, motoric figurations which intertwine with more cantilena motifs, soon to encompass a powerful syncopated bass ostinato from the piano. All these different elements are developed as the piece unfolds, again with some lovely washes of romantic colours. The composer really gives the saxophone a real work-out, from the lowest octave right through to the altissimo range as the music reaches its virtuoso ending – another real winner in my book.

On an Acte Préalable CD that is somewhat more eclectic than the label’s usual single-composer releases, from Belgium we now turn to the USA, and the works of William Grant Still – one of the first Afro-American composers to become popular in the realm of classical music. In this capacity he was able to influence a number of new musical trends, while equally providing a real inspiration for composers at the beginning of the twentieth century, such as George Gershwin.

Still studied at the Wilberforce University and Oberlin Conservatory of Music, where he learnt with George Whitefield Chadwick, and then Edgard Varèse, the latter often referred to as the ‘Father of Electronic Music’. Still’s musical output consists mainly of orchestral works, including film music and numerous arrangements. He was recognised as a national composer who was mostly inspired by American folk music, Afro-American religious rites, as well as ritual Negro spirituals. The Romance for alto saxophone and piano (or orchestra) was composed in 1954, and dedicated to Sigurd Manfred Raschèr, a German-born, American saxophone virtuoso, who became an important figure in the development of twentieth-century repertoire for the instrument. Still’s Romance was initially intended as the first section of a larger Suite, but which was never finished, and was the first of its kind written for the ‘classic’ saxophone by an Afro-American composer. It was most likely in 1951 that the dedicatee asked Still to write a piece that could combine full performance prestige with an educational work, since Raschèr intended to present this miniature in schools and universities, as well as on the regular concert-platform.

From the States, we move back across the pond to Prague, for the next work on the CD, by Czech composer and pianist of German descent, but with Jewish roots, Erwin Schulhoff. From an early age he took piano lessons at the Prague Conservatory, on the recommendation of Dvořák, and, for the next few years, continued his education in Vienna, Leipzig and Cologne, where his main studies were piano, composition, and conducting, under the guidance of an eminent array of teachers at the time. Initially his style clearly reflected the strong impressionistic and neo-romantic works by Debussy, Ravel, Scriabin, and Richard Strauss, and it’s also possible to find the influences of his compatriots like Janáček, Novák and Dvořák. But equally Schulhoff isn’t afraid to break conventions, and has variously entered the realms of dodecaphony (12-tone Technique), Expressionism, and Atonality, even preceding John Cage’s idea of using silence in his piece 4’33”, by nearly thirty years.

Exposure to all these various stimuli has led Schulhoff to formulate a modernistic style, where neo-classical elements become interlinked with jazz idioms, and contemporary dance rhythms. Typical of such an eclectic style is his Hot-Sonate (Jazz-Sonate) from 1930, where modal, and quartal harmonies (based on the interval of the fourth), form the basis of the composer’s harmonic palette. Meanwhile, the melody-leading, unpredictable accents, and concise rhythms, along with specific instrumental techniques like glissando, all point in the direction of a style modelled very much on jazz elements from the 1930s.

The Hot-Sonate is cast in four movements, and the composer, instead of using conventional Italian tempo directions, simply gives the metronome marking for each one. The opening piece suggests a ‘cakewalk’ – a gently-graceful dance, often with a little humour incorporated into the melody line, on this occasion showing some affinity to the whole-tone scale, and regular use of the somewhat ambiguous-sounding augmented triad – and with more than a nod in the direction of Debussy’s well-known piano piece, Gollywog’s Cakewalk, though in Schulhoff’s case, at the slower tempo of 66 crotchets (quarter-notes) per minute, but still good tongue-in-cheek fun, with its simple, ‘throw-away’ ending.

The second piece is not only faster, at 112 minims (half-notes) per minute, but also less than half the length of the first.- a kind of basic ‘swing’ movement, with lots of syncopations especially in the saxophone part, and this time a decidedly cheeky little ending. Then follows a really sleazy ‘blues’, set at a steady beat of 80 crotchets a minute, to which the piano adheres, with metronomic precision. The composer ensures there is more than enough variety here, despite maintaining the piano’s basic repeated-chords accompaniment, which, of course, suggests the equally-steady strumming of a guitar or banjo. On this occasion, Schulhoff decides to bow out on a sustained note from the saxophone, as the music quickly fades.

The finale opens on a much more upbeat note, and, with a speed-marking of 112 minims a minute, is also the longest movement. Around ninety seconds or so in, the music pauses, and resumes the ‘blues’ style of the previous movement, though it is a much more gentle affair, quite exotic-sounding, now with an eminently laid-back piano accompaniment. After a couple of ‘false starts’ the original tempo resumes, and now it seems all about building for a big finish. But Schulhoff is not simply going to give it to the listener on a plate. He reaches another slow, climactic section, rather like the closing bars of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, but, with just about ten seconds still left on the clock, he cranks up the tempo, but here – even in the finale – the movement is over before you’ve scarcely even noticed it.

Schulhoff was, in fact, one of the most original characters on the musical scene from the beginning of the 20th century. Being ostracized by the National Socialists, resulted in his being forgotten for a lengthy period, but in the last few decades, his music has been re-evaluated and discovered anew. After WWII began, the composer found himself without resources to live, so he tried to move to the former USSR, or to the West. But following Germany’s attack on the USSR in 1941, he was arrested and sent to a concentration camp in Wülzburg, Bavaria, where he subsequently died of tuberculosis. Hence the inclusion of this iconic work, in its equally-iconic performance, is just another reason why this new release has been something special so far.

Marcin Kopczyński was born in 1973 in Inowrocław, a city in central Poland. The CD booklet has a wealth of information about his numerous successes and achievements, so I propose to cut straight to the chase. As mentioned above, the Sonata for saxophone and piano op. 85 was commissioned by Koncepcja in 2018, the Polish phrase which Kopczyński added to the work’s title, simply meaning ‘listening to the sea and forest‘. The composer writes: ‘ it commemorates Claude Debussy on the 100th anniversary of his death, and the inspiration behind its composition was drawn from nature – sounds of the sea, forest, wind – and the amazing sonority and euphony of the classic saxophone’.

The work is cast in five movements, but played without a break. The wistful opening Andantino sets out the main musical argument, where the melodic line tends to centre around a mixture of primarily pentatonic, and whole-tone scales, and where the harmonic palette makes use both of quartal harmony (chords in fourths), and chords based on the interval of the second (next-door-neighbours on a piano keyboard. The initial Andantino morphs into the second movement, which is, in fact, another self-contained Andantino. Structurally and harmonically based on its predecessor, there are certainly more occasions when the ‘sea, wind, or rustling forest leaves’ become more and more agitated and impassioned, which is heard in both instruments, but things then calm down significantly, as the Andantino gently transforms itself into the Lento espressivo. As the title suggests, this movement constitutes the sonata’s slow movement, but even here the composer refrains from straying too far from his original modus operandi, in terms of melody, harmony, or forward motion.

A simple repeated motto-theme in gentle triplet motion signifies the close of the Lento espressivo, and, rather like a relay-race, simply hands the baton seamlessly on to the ‘fourth’ movement. The triplet motion, heard earlier is echoed at the start of the Tempo giusto¸ which then develops, with both instruments in counterpoint, into a series of climactic peaks and troughs, eventually to become the finale, marked Vivo con forza. This relies far more on triplet figurations, echoed between both instruments, which adds some very welcome pace and animation to the work as a whole. There are some calmer and more reflective moments along the way, but, watching the seconds slowly tick by, the chances of a dramatic, crowd-pleasing end would seem to play no part whatsoever in Kopczyński’s master-plan. The finale returns to the mood of the opening Andantino, and ends indecisively on an unresolved chord, from the piano alone.

There is, of course, no obligation on any composer’s part, to ensure that each and every finale must end in a blaze of glory, and there are often very good reasons for this not to be the case. Liszt, in his epic thirty-minute-long Piano Sonata (1854), also cast this in one continuous movement, like Kopczyński, but originally intended the work to end with a loud flourish, as befits the grand-virtuoso nature of its conception. However, the manuscript score reveals that the inspired, and quite magical single-note ending with which it now concludes, came to Liszt as an afterthought, but one which more accurately reflects his true persona. In Liszt’s case it provides the ideal solution, by virtue of the extreme breadth of musical styles, textures and emotions that have gone before it. But while Kopczyński’s work similarly ends on a single utterance, because of the less-clearly-defined section subdivisions and overall scarcity of musical variety, once the CD auto-ejects, or the player turns off, it’s only then that you’ll probably realise that his Sonata has come to an end.

After hearing the Waignein, Still and Schulhoff pieces, I was absolutely entranced, not just by the beauty, variety, and real inventiveness of the music, but also by the simply-superb playing and immaculate ensemble of Michał Maślak and his pianist, Justyna Jażdżyk. Indeed, anyone who still feels that the alto saxophone is some kind of a ‘bastard’ instrument – made of brass like a trumpet or horn, but with the virtually-assured faultless intonation and accuracy of a woodwind instrument, coupled with Maślak’s gloriously-mellow tone to die for – needs only to spend thirty minutes or so with these three works, and I’d be very surprised if they didn’t become totally smitten by the end.

Kopczyński’s Sonata certainly won’t gainsay this, but I don’t really feel that it adds to, or significantly detracts from the other works present. The fact that it’s a commission must have a bearing, but perhaps it might have worked out better, had it appeared in second place on the CD. Waignein’s Complainte is a great opening gambit that certainly grabs the listener’s attention from the start. Finishing with the Schulhoff should then ensure that the listener’s attention is maintained, long after the CD is over. In terms of overall presentation, this nonetheless highly-entertaining and revealing new release maintains Acte Préalable’s highest standards in terms of its crystal-clear recording, and the literary quality of the CD booklet.

If it might cause you to think more charitably about the saxophone per se, I did notice this lovely little bon mot about Adolphe Sax: ‘As a boy in early-nineteenth-century Belgium, the accident-prone lad was struck on the head by a brick, swallowed a needle, fell down a flight of stairs, toppled onto a burning stove, and accidentally imbibed some sulphuric acid. When he grew up, he invented the saxophone!’ Personally, I’m so very grateful that he managed to survive all these trials and tribulations, in order to produce such a versatile and appealing family of musical instruments and the alto saxophone in particular.
Philip R Buttall

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