I think this is perhaps the best disc I have offered in quite a while. It's just that good. It is a rare recording of chamber saxophone music composed during 1920-1940, by distinguished men with very different compositional personalities. Chamber music with saxophone is still rather light in the repertoire, and I doubt highly that even the most serious listeners would be able to name more than 10 such pieces off the top of their heads. And oh how wonderful and natural the saxophone sounds singing within such an intimate setting! This makes the special program at hand that much more interesting indeed.
The between-the-war years were pivotal period in the history of the saxophone, which was invented by the Belgian craftsman Adolphe Sax around the year 1845. Acceptance of the new instrument within classical music circles, needles to say, had initially been slow to come. Although before 1920 there had been occasional use of the saxophone as an orchestral instrument, and several high quality solo works had been written for it, these were essentially isolated efforts which failed to immediately reach a large public. Meanwhile, however, the saxophone was quietly gaining a regular a regular place in military bands and touring ensembles such as the Sousa Band, as well as a grassroots use in popular music making, vaudeville, and novelty acts. Thousands of saxophones were sold in the early years of the 20th century as more manufacturers (such as Selmer, Conn, and Buescher) began producing their versions of Sax's invention. In tandem with the advent of the gramophone, radio, and the other media of popular culture that we know today, a saxophone "craze" swept America and Europe during the early 1920s. The sudden ubiquity of the sax led to its acceptance in early jazz bands, and encouraged classical to look again at the instrument. The stage was set for the rise of great individual artists such as Marcel Mule, Rudy Weidoft, Sigurd Rascher, Sidney Bechet, Coleman Hawkins, Johnny Hodges and others, each with their own perspective on the instrument. Within the classical sphere, perhaps because the saxophone was part of the zeitgeist of the day and yet an instrument of still undefined potential, composers of widely varying styles felt drawn to experimenting with it. The period 1920-1940 saw a blossoming of recital pieces and concertos, as well as more frequent use of the saxophone in the orchestra. A new world of chamber music opened up; these years saw the birth of the saxophone quartet medium in its modern sense, and, for the first time, the inclusion of the sax in mixed chamber settings. This "strand" of repertoire contains some of the most exceptional music for saxophone. Several of the early examples in this genre remain among the finest, and imo this disc offers five of the best such pioneering works.
Adolf Busch was renowned as a violinist, performing as a soloist, orchestral leader at the Konzertverein in Vienna from 1912-1918, and most importantly as a chamber musician. His "Busch Quartet" toured the world extensively between 1919-1945. Parallel to his performing work, Busch composed over 70 works during his career, having been encouraged and influenced in this direction during his youth by Max Reger. The "Quintett for Alto Saxophone, two Violins, Viola and Cello" written in 1925, demonstrates similar virtues to Busch's playing and is firmly rooted in a German Romantic sensibility. The first movement is in a classic sonata form; the second a playful and rather free scherzo developed from an initial 5-note motif; the third is an imaginative set of variations on a theme initially stated by the saxophone alone. It's unclear whether this most charming quintette was ever performed during Busch's lifetime, and it was actually published only in 1982, making it somewhat "recent" and substantial addition to the saxophone repertoire.
Charles Koechlin was highly prolific in his output, which is still unjustly neglected today. I find him to be one of the most interesting and original composers from any time period, and indeed he ranks amongst my favorites. In the early decades of the 20th century he was considered in the front rank of French musicians and associated with Debussy, Ravel, Schmitt, and Milhaud. Although Koechlin wrote many large-scale works, I'd say it's his chamber works and miniatures that are the closest to perfection, and among his most successful pieces. The "Epitaphe de Jean Harlow" Op. 164 (Romance for Flute, Alto Saxophone, and piano is one of a series of works which were inspired by by what Koechlin called the "insolent beauty" of the female stars - Greta Garbo, Lilian Harvey, Ginger Rogers, Marlene Dietrich - of the early 'talking' cinema. Composed in 1937, the Epitaphe wistfully captures the beauty of Jean Harlow, the dazzling blonde comedienne who had died suddenly that years at the age of 26. Less than four minutes in duration, it's almost too lovely for words.
The great Paul Hindemith was also a theorist, teacher, and musical philosopher, and his work in these areas is considered to be just as important as his large and varied body of compositions. As many will already know Hindemith's name is associated with the terms "Gebrauchsmusik" and "Sing-und Spielmusik" (as in, music written for a specific function, or with performance by amateurs in mind). Although only a few of his pieces were purely of this type, addressing issues of relevance and of bridging the gap between composers and audiences was clearly part of Hindemith's mission. During the 1920s he experimented with writing music for various new instruments, including the pianola and the trautonium. The "Trio for Viola, Tenor Saxophone, and Piano" Op. 47 is from this phase, composed in 1928, and originally intended for hecklephone, viola and piano. It was soon after approved by Hindemith for performance on the tenor saxophone, perhaps in keeping with his desire to make his music as "accessible" as possible, and to provide repertoire for yet another 'unusual' instrument. The Trio itself is in two movements of rather free form, often densely contrapuntal, the mainly quick tempi and astringent harmonies lend the work an incisive brilliance.
The Austrian composer Anton Webern was one of the most individual voices of the first half of the 20th century and one of the most influential on his successors in the second half. Closely associated with Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg, with them he was one of the original proponents of the twelve-tone row technique of composition. Of the three Webern probably has the most 'cerebral' reputation. His "Quartette for Violin, Clarinet, Tenor Saxophone and Piano" Op. 22 is one of his mature works and has many features typical of his style: twelve-tone, generation of very compact ideas in pointilistic 2, 3, or 4 note motifs, and a very cohesive, almost crystalline structure. The structure of the work also relates to earlier forms; the delicate, beautifully poised first movement, referred to as an "intermezzo" in the original outline, has a binary nature; the energetic, episodic second movement was designed as a rondo and based on Beethoven's Op. 14 Piano Sonata.
The Cuban pianist and (hugely neglected!) composer Joaquin Nin grew up in Spain. He studied and lived in Paris and then Berlin as a young man before returning to Havana in 1910. As a performer he regularly toured Europe and the Americas and was particularly praised for his interpretations of J.S. Bach and music of the Spanish Baroque (many works of which he edited for publication). The gorgeous "Le Chant du Veilleur for Mezzo-Soprano, Alto Saxophone, and Piano" composed in 1933, is typical of Nin's music in that it blends a penchant for contrapuntal melodic writing with more general influences of impressionism. The song was originally conceived for violin and not saxophone; it was later re-published in a transcription which replaced the violin with the alto sax at the suggestion of the French virtuoso, Jean-Marie Londiex. I shall have to remember to dig up my other Nin recordings as all of his music is truly something special.
Heitor Villa-Lobos achieved in his hundreds of works a remarkable synthesis of the indigenous folk and urban popular music (choros) of his native Brazil with various European influences (Richard Strauss, Puccini, the Russian Five, and impressionism..). As prolific as Villa-Lobos was, I still enjoy his chamber music most of all. It's just so entirely original, and utterly magical to me. The oddball "Quatour for Harp, Celeste, Flute, and Alto Saxophone with Female Voices, written & premiered in 1922 is such a piece. Villa-Lobos always loved unorthodox, curious instrumental combinations and there are many chamber music works that fit this into this category. I think it's safe to say that this piece owes a particular debt to Debussy. Villa-Lobos was aware of Debussy's Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp and had heard a performance of "Sirenes" (from the Nocturnes for Orchestra and chorus) in Rio in 1920. At any rate, the work itself is of a virtuoso nature, especially for the harp. Elements of fantasy are balanced against themes which reappear throughout all three movements, binding the work together. The first movement is devoted to exploring the qualities of the instruments alone. The voices are added in the second and third movements, singing wordless lines which bring a timeless atmosphere and sensual beauty to the music of the instrumental quartet. The "Quatour" is a rarely-heard chamber music masterpiece imo, and entirely unique in the repertoire.