French get their due in new program by Amherst Saxophone Quartet

Works reviewed: 
Trois Conversations, Paul Pierné
Quatuor pour Saxophones, Alfred Desenclos
Quatuor de Saxophones (1962), Claude Pascal
Cache-Cache, Robert Clerisse
Golliwogg's Cakewalk, Claude Debussy
Le Petit Negre, Claude Debussy
Buffalo News
Buffalo, NY
Nov 28 1995
Herman Trotter

The inventor of the saxophone, Adolphe Sax, was a Belgian instrument maker who lived most of his life in Paris. Consequently, the saxophone has always been presumed to have had French origins, and it was French composers who first championed the instrument, both in solo context and ensembles.

This inventive and wholly delightful program by the Buffalo-based, world-touring Amherst Saxophone Quartet takes note of the French pride of place in the saxophone world, offering four major 20th century works.

While each of these works had distinctive qualities, to my ear they seemed united by a well honed French sense of reed-instrument assurance that lies somewhere between elegance and insouciance. And as far as surface tonal sheen is concerned, at many points I sensed a glistening quality, somewhat like the Ravel String Quartet.

This was brought home with the first notes of the opening work, the 1964 Quartet by Alfred Desenclos, smooth and suave, with faint jazzy overtones. A hint of blues was added to the slow movement, whose ruminative central section was played with such exquisite balance that every reed voice could be followed m detail, and yet the integrity of the ensemble was never broken. The final movement was assertive and jabby, with capricious bursts of energy and changes of mood.

Paul Pierne's "Three Conversations for Four Saxophones" established a different character for each of the "conversations." The "amusing" opener was brief, sassy and clean textured, while the middle "sentimental" statements were more extended, flowing gently over a slowly pulsing, shifting ground bass line.

Pierne's concluding conversation was "animated," as described, proceeding in brief statements deftly passed from one instrument to another in a curt, often staccato-like manner.

Everything was played in a very secure, self possessed manner. which seemed absolutely nght but at all times called attention to the music, not the virtuosity of the performers.

In this context It seems arbitrary to single out a favorite moment but for this listener the third 'movement called "Choral" of Claude Pascal's 1962 Quartet stood out enough to assume a position as the center of the concert.

The work had opened with an "Anime" movement a bit more disjunct than earlier pieces, with the theme presented in what seemed interrupted segments. This made for a busy, choppy longer line, ending with a quirky final upturn.

The "Choral" movement had a distinctive and arresting sense of elevation. After the main theme was presented by the baritone to chordal accompaniment, a sort of loose set of variations followed with the theme in shifting guises, each to a different accompaniment pattern. The movement seemed to reach a spiritual crisis or moment of decision with a long held dissonant chord, which was worked out through a series of chordal mutations that provided a very satisfying denouement and resolution.

Concluding the work were a slicked-up waltz, still with that feeling of French suavity, and a final perky, almost pointillist romp whose ear-grabbing coda was built on a sequence of dissonant chords and an exclamatory downward run.

Three disarmingly short pieces by Robert Clerisse were lumped together as the fourth major work. A mock serious Introduction was over almost before we could get a fix on it, followed by a fast flowing Scherzo and what spokesman Stephen Rosenthal described as a musical game of hide and seek.

This highly individual music opened with brief ascending gestures tossed back and forth, alternating with islands of repose in which questioning figures swam in a pool of quiet tremolos. As the music developed it seemed almost an attempt at impressionist polyphony, if that's not a contradiction in terms. Whatever, it was very attractive.

In an extremely clever maneuver, the ensemble continued its tradition of ending programs with ragtime pieces, but without breaking the "French Sax" ambience.


With a transcription of Debussy's "Golliwog's Cakewalk," the cakewalk being a form of ragtime dance.

They kept the program integrity intact even in the encore, "Petite Negre," another cakewalk which Debussy wrote in 1909 for a book on Piano Method for Children.

In both repertoire and performance, this was one of the Amherst ensemble's best programs.

French get their due in new program by Amherst Saxophone Quartet