Quatuor pour saxophones, op. 31, Jean Absil

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Quatuor pour saxophones, op. 31, Jean Absil
Year of Composition: 1937    
Andante - Allegro vivo
Nocturne
Finale

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
Buffalo News (Buffalo, NY)
Saturday, April 10, 1999
Amherst Saxophone Quartet rises to the occasion
Herman Trotter

The 1997 Saxophone Quartet composed by Theodore Wiprud was jointly commissioned by the Amherst Saxophone Quartet and several other ensembles, and has had prior partial performances and has undergone considerable subsequent revision.

The final version of the work was given its initial airing during Friday evening's concert, with the composer on hand to offer comments and listening guides.

The composer says it relies heavily on the whole step as a building block, and sure enough, right at the opening rising whole steps were successively hurled at us in angry bursts by the baritone, tenor, alto and soprano.

The movement's expressive marking is "assertive," and although there eventually was an island of repose in a prolonged slow section, its dominant character relied on music's vertical elements. The key interval appeared in canonic fashion, chordal segments, with a lot of syncopation and key silences, all with intriguing development.

The second movement is marked "Punchy" and is obsessed with staccato playing, much of it undergirded by unfolding lyrical lines. A simple three-note riff swung with increasing energy into a rather bluesy slow section, which Wiprud called an encapsulated slow movement. The staccato dominance returned both as a focus and as support for a series of cadenzas with a decidedly wailing jazz slant. some toneless key slaps and a quick, chirping ending.

The final movement ("Brisk") had a rather "scattered" texture reminiscent of the previous movements, then waded into a sonorous chordal passage and concluded with lightning rising scales and an energetic final fillip.

Although the work showed a lot of originality, imagination and truly held one's attention, the predominance of vertical concerns over sustained linear musical thoughts tended to make the first hearing a bit one-dimensional.

Another premiere was Stephen Rosenthal's transcription of Dvorak's String Quartet in F ("American"). Although the playing of the ensemble, here and elsewhere, was technically and musically superb, it seemed that the translation of string writing to saxes resulted in everything sounding two markings louder than usual: for example, "mf" sounded like "ff."

In addition, there is something about the impingement of the sonorities of the four saxes on each other that produces resonances and overtones which sound alien to those of us who are familiar with the string original. Even the gentle opening trill on the soprano saxophone was so out of character with one's memory of the string quartet that it was almost a "squeaky chalk on the blackboard" experience. And when the soprano in ensemble was pushed into the upper register, there was a reaching quality to the projection which made it sound flat.

It all fell together better in the final movement, leaving a good ring in the ear, but the overall experience was a disappointment.

Lowell Shaw's transcription of Bach's Toccata in D minor for clavier was far more successful, and the superbly articulated supporting lines by baritone Harry Fackelman were a continual pleasure.

Belgian composer Jean Absil's brief, sassy and scampering Quartet, Op. 31 made a fine concert closer, with its intriguing sequential entrances in the slow movement and the finale with an alto opening reminiscent of the famous clarinet solo in "Rhapsody in Blue."

Saxophone Quartet (1997), Theodore Wiprud
Quartet in F Major, Op. 96, Antonin Dvorak
Toccata in d minor, Johann Sebastian Bach
Quatuor pour saxophones, op. 31, Jean Absil
Amherst Saxophone Quartet rises to the occasion
Buffalo News (Buffalo, NY)
Thursday, November 13, 1997
Quartet's second time around is no mistake
Herman Trotter

In celebrating its 20th anniversary this season, the Amherst Saxophone Quartet reprised, in its initial concert, its very first concert. For the second set, it is replaying a 1982 Carnegie Hall concert.

"It was a watershed for us," said spokesman Stephen Rosenthal, "because the fine review which the New York Times gave us was a springboard to a long and healthy career."

After hearing the concert again, it's clear that the Times' positive review was earned.

The strong, fascinating program centered on two works written for the pioneering Marcel Mule Quartet: the 1931 Quartet in B-Flat, Op. 109 by Glazunov and the 1937 Quartet, Op. 31 by Belgian composer Jean Absil.

The Glazunov Quartet is typical of the composer's immaculately tailored construction.

The first movement was an easy reminiscence at the outset, unfolding into a section of increasing intricacy in which the tempo gradually increased to an all-out sprint.
 
Glazunov's mastery of harmony and instrumentation allowed the quartet to bring out its mellow, rich sounds, which were captivating even in the low-ceilinged confines of the Bijou Grille.

The central movement offers some of the most gorgeous sonorities in the repertory. It's an extended set of variations on a warm, beautifully harmonized chorale-like theme that is gradually increased in tempo to a crisp, clean, scampering Scherzo finale. Along the way, my fancy was particularly taken by the second variation built on trills which ping-pong back and forth among the instruments as the music's ruminations are worked out, and by the fourth, in which a chromatically wandering idea is given a seductive, very close harmonization.

The Finale clips along with punchy accents and an intriguing downward walking theme, accelerating to another exciting conclusion.

Absil's quartet was well placed in the wake of the Glazunov work because it had its own virtues without any sense of competition or imitation. Its three movements offered a jocular tune that echoed among the saxes, a slow Nocturne full of wavering figures under a lazy, descending theme, and a cleverly fragmented staccato Finale.

The concert had opened with Robert Clerisse's 1957 "Introduction and Scherzo," built on oft-changing moods in both of its sections. In its brevity it seems something of a bauble, but its excellent construction and wealth of pithy, short, occasionally sentimental ideas lift it well above the realm of the trivial.

The second half of the concert was all American, opening with Paul Creston's four-movement 1979 Suite, Op. 111. Variety of texture and rhythm was the attraction here. There were briskly paced, eccentric walking figures; odd; ear-catching rhythmic changes; gently flowing lines; and a perpetual motion Finale in which I doubt there was a single rest for anyone.

Buffalo composer Stephen Parisi's 1981 "Introduction and Capriccio," written for the quartet, pitted the opening's dreamy treble ambience 'with some surprising moments of depth against the rapid-fire Capriccio, with several energizing changes of rhythm and meter, and bursts of staccato playing like islands in the musical sea.

The quartet concluded with four trademark rags by Eubie Blake. "Poor Katie Redd" bounced along between a swagger and a strut; "Valse Marion" was slow and homey, generously strewn with exaggerated rubato; "Dictys on Seventh Avenue" was more strictly written, but without losing its ragtime rhythmic kick; and "Charleston Rag" a classic of the genre, barreled along over a wonderful descending baritone line.

Quatuor (1931), Alexander Glazunov
Quatuor pour saxophones, op. 31, Jean Absil
Introduction et Scherzo (1957), Robert Clerisse
Suite for Saxophone Quartet (1979), Paul Creston
Introduction and Capriccio (1981), Stephen Parisi
Quartet's second time around is no mistake
Buffalo News (Buffalo, NY)
Monday, February 25, 1991
Listeners come to watch saxophone music
Herman Trotter

Seven artists respond graphically to Amherst Quartet's performance
The idea behind this collaboration, called "Music at an Exhibition," was rather accurately described as the reverse of the process which produced Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition."

In 1862 Mussorgsky composed a suite of 10 pieces with connecting "promenade" passages evoking in tones the flavors of drawings and watercolors by Victor Hartmann.

And in 1991, at the suggestion of the Amherst Saxophone Quartet, Director Anthony Bannon of the Burchfield Art Center invited seven artists to listen to tapes of the music to be performed by the quartet and respond graphically to their perceptions of the sounds.

It's significant that four of the seven artists chose to respond to Andrew Stiller's Chamber Symphony. But it's not all that surprising, because of the four works played by the quartet Stiller's had decidedly the most distinctive and memorable profile.

Its first-movement excursion into dissonant quarter tones seemed to impair the progress of the music rather painfully, but the warmly harmonized plaint of the slow movement, the jabbering and punchy textures of the Menuetto and the tight, precipitous runs and devilishly sinuous lines of the Presto were exceptionally well played.

Upstairs in the Burchfield Art Center, Ann Koziol Stevens' collage "White on White" caught the feeling of some of Stiller's tight, homogeneous textures quite well and Sue Katz's "Sonata Form ABA," three white, cubic, jungle gym-like constructions of stoneware, wooden sticks and string showed sensitivity to its form.

Beforehand, Alfonso Volo's acrylic caricatures of four instruments with outlandish human features seemed pointless, but after hearing the whimsical-to-bitter character of Stiller's Menuetto, Volo's perception seemed apt.

Only one other musical work was singled out by an artist. Belgian composer Jean Absil's "Quatuor pour Saxophones" moved Carol Townsend to produce freely suspended, rotating cornucopia-like constructions whose misshapen bodies looked like caterpillar larvae, while their horn-bell openings suggested the angular contours and rich sonorities which emerged from the saxophone bells during Absil's work.

In Buffalo composer Robert Mols' "Enchainment" the tight passage work, elemental gestures and the seeming struggle between sustaining tones and energetic flights were played by the quartet with excellent ensemble.

And David Deason's Saxophone Quartet, an enigmatic mix of endearing and offputting passages, was also extremely well played, from what I could tell on first hearing.

But none of the artists chose to interpret any impressions gleaned from these two works.

In response to "all the music," James Pappas provided nine paper panels of abstract scratchings, some of which vaguely suggested musical notation in various stages of disarray.

Rosemarie Bauer-Sroka took a similar overview, and produced "Musical Gardens," an oil on foam painting whose thin-lined geometric shapes and vivid colors spoke of great organizational ability but didn't seem to evoke any feelings I got from the music.

The other artist who felt a message in Stiller's music was photographer Mark Dellas, whose untitled black and white photo of a dominant shoulder and partial torso wearing a tank top was fine as a life study but had no connection to the music that I could determine.

In the end, I'd rather applaud the idea of "Music at an Exhibition" than linger over the less than complete success achieved. Perhaps if the artists had been turned loose on a program with more familiar music such as the Bach, Gershwin and Eubie Blake which are in the quartet's repertoire, the artistic results might have had more obvious connections with the musical process.

Chamber Symphony (1983), Andrew Stiller
Quatuor pour saxophones, op. 31, Jean Absil
Enchainment (1981), Robert Mols
Quartet, David Deason
Listeners come to watch saxophone music
News-Gazette (Lexington, VA)
Wednesday, November 4, 1987
Quartet's Showmanship Dazzling
James W.H. Stewart Jr.

"And here we go with another classical saxophone recital," tenor sax maniac Steven Rosenthal mock-solemnly intones, a seemingly matter-of-fact introduction. But, as a matter of fact, can you state the place, time of day, month and year when you last attended (let alone stayed awake at) a classical saxophone recital? You might be hard pressed to remember, unless you saw the Johnny Carson show in 1985 when the Amherst Saxophone Quartet unleashed its brand of impeccable musicianship and P.D.Q. Bach showmanship on insomniacs everywhere.

The volatile ingredients of the Amherst Saxophone Quartet are Salvatore Andolina, soprano saxophone; Michael Nascimben, alto saxophone; Steven Rosenthal, tenor saxophone; and Harry Fackelman, baritone saxophone. This configuration parellels that of the string quartet and adds to their argument that European classical music had a repertoire and tradition for saxophone well before Amencan jazz made the saxophone America's premier instrument. On Wednesday, Oct. 28, the quartet Seminary Junior College.

Essentially, European composers have treated the saxophone as a woodwind instrument from the invention of the family by Adolph Sax in 1846, while jazz and popular styles treated saxophones more as brass instruments with harsher, brighter sonorities. The Amherst Quartet's program explored the saxophone's remarkable potential for chamber music with a wide variety of delightful pieces by regrettably obscure composers.

The Introduction et Scherzo and "Serenade Melancolique" by Robert Clerisse alternated roundlike among the instruments with smooth neoclassical tunes, suggesting what Mozart might have written for the saxophone had he lived to hear it. The "Serenade" also showed the influence of Debussy with its piquant, whole tones.
 
"Sevilla," a transcription of a piece composed by Isaac Albeniz around the turn of the century, featured typically Spanish rhythms in 6/8 time. But the development of the piece was anything but typical, with some shining soliloquies for the soprano sax, while baritonist Fackelman honked amusingly in the deep register.

Rosenthal introduced the next piece as "the brilliantly entitled Quartuor por Saxophones," which means quartet for saxophones, by Joseph Jongen (1942). In one movement, the piece's gradual transition to an eloquent andante, then to a final snake dancelike allegro, gives the impression of three distinct movements. Oddly, the soprano and alto saxes foreshadowed the four-note "Twilight Zone" motif, written almost 20 years later than this piece, while a smooth melody for tenor sax floated over. But there is basically nothing otherworldly about this sociably droll music. Like a Tom and Jerry cartoon, whose music the piece also predicts, the impression is given that each member of the cast will get up and shake hands after the cream and seltzer' water have been mopped up.

The Introduction and Capriccio by Steven Parisi showcased Andolina's remarkable gift for making his soprano sax sound uncommonly like a flute, oboe, clarinet and even trumpet! The Capriccio also featured some devilishly tricky ensemble rhythms handled with aplomb.

After a brief intermission, the group returned with a transcription by altoist Nascimbom of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor. Subjected to innumerable transcriptions by the likes of Stokowski, the Swingle Singers, and Walter Wendy Carlos, this great warhorse got a fine treatment by the players, excepting some minor fudging by the soprano and alto. But for a cake as nice as this, a little fudge is just a minor sin. Of course, I would never be so heartless a reviewer as to suggest that the reason this was the only piece with mistakes was that it was the only piece on the program I knew. A fine reading overall.

The Quartet for Saxophone, Op. 31, by Jean Absil, exploited massed trills and tremulos to great sonic effect, with some more amusing quotes. The second movement opening suggests the beginning of the third movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, while the third movement opening mimicked the speakeasy intro of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." I suppose this provides a nice illustration of how the motifs of nauseatingly overplayed classics can be used to introduce pieces that are totally unrelated. The piece was great fun and deserves to be heard again.

The last two segments of the program brought the saxophone back to its American jazz and ragtime roots, and neatly completed in my mind the perception of jazz and ragtime as American classical music. The "Jazz Vignettes" by Andrew White and the transcriptions of Eubie Blake's ragtimes made light of the contributions of the Count Basie big band and Lester Young, among others, who discovered whole new ways of writing for and playing the saxophone. These contributions again sounded fresh against the historical context with which the quartet contrasted them. The Amherst Saxophone Quartet has contributed immeasurably to our understanding of the "yakkety sax."

At the end, having imitated the flute, oboe, clarinet, trumpet and even Lawrence Wclk 's accordian, soprano saxist Andolina topped it all by mimicking the harp. I am referring, of course. to his ridiculous Harpo Marx gestures, inciting the crowd to clap and shut up by turns. And as if all of that were not enough, when Rosenthal made a mock pathetic appeal to the audience to buy the albums in the lobby, Andolina, while the baritonist played a maudlin tune, held his soprano sax to his neck like a violin and "played" with an imaginary bow. One more corny gesture like that, and the audience might well have imitated violence. An educational good time was had by all.

Quatuor pour saxophones, op. 31, Jean Absil
Introduction and Capriccio (1981), Stephen Parisi
Quatuor, op. 122 (1942), Joseph Jongen
Sevilla, Isaac Albéniz
Introduction et Scherzo (1957), Robert Clerisse
Serenade Melancolique, Robert Clérisse
Quartet's Showmanship Dazzling

Composer Biography

1893 — 1974

Jean Absil, a Belgian composer, began his musical studies as an organist, but in 1920 turned to the study of composition. His Piano Concerto (1938) brought him international attention. In 1955 he was elected to the Belgian Royal Academy, and in 1964 he received the Prix Quinquennial of the Belgian government. Absil's style is essentially polyphonic and polymodal. Changes in meter and irrational divisions are frequent. His music has great structural clarity, often cast in variation or other conventional forms. Absil's oeuvre includes works for orchestra, chorus, voice, piano, guitar, as well as many works for chamber ensembles, including three important works for saxophone quartet.

Composition Notes

The Quatuor pour saxophones, op. 31, composed in 1937, is a charming and concise work in three movements: Andante - Allegro vivo - Nocturne et Finale. The brief initial Andante begins on a melancholy note, setting up the optimistic character of the Allegro vivo. The Nocturne is like a barcarole coming from some distant celebration. The work ends with a virtuosic Finale.