Quatuor pour Saxophones, Alfred Desenclos

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Quatuor pour Saxophones, Alfred Desenclos
Year of Composition: 1963    
Allegro non troppo
Poco largo, Allegro energico


Cape Cod Times (Wellfleet, MA)
Tuesday, February 22, 2005
First-rate show by Amherst sax group

Clarity prevailed, in the transcription of Mozart's String Quartet in C Major, K. 465. This is Mozart at his "naughty boy" best.

A major figure in the symphonic clarinet world once sneeringly pronounced, "No gentleman ever plays the saxophone." This now iconic figure has since departed, but had he heard the four gentleman constituting the Amherst Saxophone Quartet Sunday at the First Congregational Church in Wellfleet, he would have been quickly disabused of his remark.

An ensemble of soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxophonists, the quartet is in its 27th year, has played more than 500 works written specifically for their instrumentation (not including transcriptions) and has appeared in major venues throughout this country and overseas. It would be inaccurate to dismiss this group as less than a first-rate chamber music ensemble comparable to the best small string ensembles.

In writing his "Octet for Wind Instruments," Stravinsky observed, "I remember what a great effort it cost me to establish an ensemble of eight wind instruments so that they should not overwhelm the listeners with a great display of tone." Unlike a string quartet, which has an inherent transparency, giving the listener the opportunity to hear clearly all four voices, four richly toned wind instruments provide a challenge to both players and omposers to "not overwhelm the listeners with a great display of tone."

But clarity prevailed throughout Sunday's concert, particularly in the transcription of Mozart's String Quartet in C Major, K. 465, the socalled "Dissonant" due to the stretched harmonies of its introduction. This is Mozart at his "naughty boy"best, having fun with his listeners, putting them on. All four players are virtuoso masters of their instruments, and baritone player Harry Fackelman was especially polished in his rendition of the original cello line.

Stephen Rosenthal plays the soprano saxophone, the highest of the four saxes, and is the leader and spokesman of the group. The soprano instrument is notoriously difficult to play in tune. Not only was Rosenthal's intonation virtually impeccable, but also he brought to the highest notes of his instrument the sweet focus and center of the upper registers of a rarely heard but elegantly played clarinet in its highest tessitura.

By virtue of the French concept of wind playing, which embodies a lighter, brighter and more incisive sound, French composers are particularly suited for writing for wind ensembles. The works by Alfred Desenclos (1912-1971) and Florent Schmitt (1870-1958) incorporated that elusive quality of transparency and the ebullience of the French school. The quartet was at its best in the snappy, articulated passages, with rapid passing back and forth among the four instruments.

Adolphe Sax, a Belgian, invented the saxophone around 1840, so it was particularly fitting that Belgian composer Jean Absil's "Quatour pour Saxophones, Op. 31" end the program. Perhaps the least-telling piece on the program, it did provide opportunity to hear in solo passages the beautiful tone and technique of alto saxophonist David Yusko. Tenor player Yevgeny Dokschuvsky played an effective and pivotal role in providing a link between the baritone and alto parts throughout the concert.

With the scores of young schoolchildren playing saxophone on the Cape, it would seem to be a missed opportunity not to bring the Amherst ensemble back and gather those young tyros together at some place to hear this extraordinary group.

Quartet in C Major, K. 465, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Quatuor pour Saxophones, Alfred Desenclos
Quatuor pour Saxophones, Op. 102, Florent Schmitt
Quatuor pour saxophones, op. 31, Jean Absil
First-rate show by Amherst sax group
Buffalo News (Buffalo, NY)
Tuesday, November 28, 1995
French get their due in new program by Amherst Saxophone Quartet
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.

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
French get their due in new program by Amherst Saxophone Quartet

Composer Biography

1912 — 1971

ALFRED DESENCLOS was born in Pas-de-Calais in 1912. He won the Paris Conservatory's prestigious Prix de Rome in 1942, and in 1943 became the director for the conservatory in Roubaix. He produced a wealth of piano music, songs, chamber music, a symphony, a requiem and film music. Most of his writing fits into the French tradition, which pays homage to esprit and elegance.

Composition Notes

The three-movement quartet for saxophones was composed in 1964 in a style that combines masterful control of form with a lyricism that is expressive and rich in variation. The first movement is built on two contrasting themes, one agitated and the other pastoral. In the Andante, the long, dream-like phrase in the soprano saxophone is broken off in the middle section by a passionate outburst. After an introduction, the finale begins with an Allegro energico filled with jazz-inspired syncopation.

Desenclos' Quatuor pour Saxophones was commissioned by the French Parliament for the saxophone quartet of Marcel Mule.