Quatuor pour Saxophones, Op. 102, Florent Schmitt

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Quatuor pour Saxophones, Op. 102, Florent Schmitt
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Review

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

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

Composer Biography

1870 — 1958

A Lorrainer, born in Meurthe-et-Moselle, Schmitt originally took music lessons in Nancy with the local composer Gustave Sandré. Subsequently (at the age of 19) he entered the Paris Conservatoire. There he studied with Gabriel Fauré, Jules Massenet, Théodore Dubois, and Albert Lavignac. In 1900 he won the Prix de Rome.

From 1929 to 1939 Schmitt worked as a music critic for Le Temps, in which role he created considerable controversy, not least for his indiscreet habit of shouting out verdicts from his seat in the hall. The music publisher Heugel went so far as to call him "an irresponsible lunatic".

Having been one of the most often performed of French composers during the first four decades of the 20th century, Schmitt afterwards fell into comparative neglect, although he continued writing music till the end (and in 1952 he became a member of the Légion d'honneur). He became the subject of attacks — both in his last years and posthumously — over his pro-German sympathies during the 1930s, and over his willingness to work for the Vichy regime later on (as indeed other eminent French musicians did, notably Alfred Cortot and Joseph Canteloube).

He died in Neuilly-sur-Seine in 1958, aged 87. The 1990s witnessed a small-scale revival of his output, and an increased coverage of it on compact disc.

Schmitt wrote 138 works with opus numbers. He composed examples of most of the major forms of music, except for opera. Today his most famous pieces are La tragédie de Salome and Psaume XLVII (Psalm 47). His piano quintet in B minor, written in 1908, helped establish his reputation. Other works include a violin sonata (Sonate Libre), a late string quartet, a saxophone quartet,[2] Dionysiaques for wind band, and two symphonies. He was part of the group known as Les Apaches. His own style, recognizably impressionistic, owed something to the example of Debussy, though it had distinct traces of Wagner and Richard Strauss also.

Schmitt composed a ballet La tragédie de Salomé in 1907 as a commission from Jacques Rouché for Loie Fuller and the Théâtre des Arts. From the original ballet score, scored for twenty instruments and lasting about an hour, Schmitt prepared a symphonic poem of the same name, half as long as the ballet score, for a much expanded orchestra. The symphonic poem version is much better-known (with recordings conducted by Schmitt himself, Paul Paray, Jean Martinon, Antonio de Almeida, Marek Janowski and others), but there is also an excellent recording of the 1907 ballet score under Patrick Davin on the Marco Polo label. The rhythmic syncopations, polyrhythms, percussively treated chords, bitonality, and scoring of Schmitt's work anticipate Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. While composing The Rite of Spring, Stravinsky acknowledged that Schmitt's ballet gave him greater joy than any work he had heard in a long time, but they fell out with each other in later years, and Stravinsky reversed his opinion of Schmitt's works.

In 1927 he was one of the ten French composers who each contributed a dance for the children's ballet L'éventail de Jeanne: he wrote the finale, a Kermesse-Valse.

[From Wikipedia]