About this Recording
8.554784 - Music for Saxophone and Orchestra
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Music for Saxophone and Orchestra

The saxophone was developed in Paris in the 1840s by Adolphe Sax, a member of the instrument-manufacturing Sax family established in Brussels. It was natural that the new instrument would have a particular appeal to French composers and it found an early place in French military bands, gradually making an appearance in French opera for special purposes of orchestral colouring. In America the saxophone proved of use to Sousa in the l890s, before becoming an essential element in jazz and in swing bands.

An astonishingly prolific composer, Darius Milhaud was born in 1892 in Aix-en-Provence into a prosperous Jewish family. Trained at the Paris Conservatoire as a pupil of Leroux, Gédalge, Dukas and Widor, he enjoyed close friendship with a number of painters and writers. Among the latter Paul Claudel assumed some importance in his life, particularly when Milhaud was able in 1916 to accompany him to Brazil, employed nominally as Claudel's secretary at the French embassy. Milhaud's earliest music for the theatre was for plays by Claudel. Now their association introduced a new influence, the music of Brazil. Throughout his life Milhaud travelled widely, obliged, with the German occupation of France, to take temporary refuge in the United States of America. In 1947 he was able to return home, but maintained his teaching connection with America in spite of the increasingly paralyzing effects of rheumatoid arthritis, from which he suffered for many years.

Among Milhaud's most popular music is the suite known as Scaramouche, drawn from incidental music written in 1937 for a production of a children's play by Vildrac based on Molière's Le médicin volant, in which the figure from the Italian comedy, renamed by Molière Sganarelle, appears as a pretend Italian doctor, of transparent incompetence, to help his master's love intrigues. The original Italian play involved Scaramouche himself in this role. The new version of the play was staged at the Théâtre Scaramouche in Paris in May 1937. The witty music by Milhaud opens with a lively movement that makes some use of a tune better known to the English as 'Ten green bottles, hanging on the wall'. The second movement has more romantic pretentious, leading to a final excursion to South America.

Glazunov was a pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov, with whom he collaborated in the completion of compositions left unfinished by Borodin. He won early favour with Balakirev, self-appointed mentor of a group of composers devoted to the cause of Russian musical nationalism but Balakirev's influence was soon replaced by that of Belyayev. After the political disturbances of 1905 in St. Petersburg, Glazunov was elected director of the Conservatory, a position he retained even after 1928 when he settled in Paris. As a composer, Glazunov combines national inspiration with the technical musical accomplishment of professional Russian musicians of his generation. His particular skill in orchestration is admirably shown in the Saxophone Concerto, a significant element in the classical repertoire of the instrument, in which the possibilities of the saxophone are deftly exploited. It was written two years before his death but shows no evidence of declining facility.

It was with considerable reluctance that Debussy undertook a commission to write a work for the saxophone. The American player of the instrument, Mrs. Richard J. Hall, was nothing if not persistent. She commissioned the work in 1895, but it was not completed until 1908, in a version for alto saxophone and piano. The scoring for orchestra sketched by Debussy was only completed in 1919 by Roger-Ducasse. Mrs. Hall had taken up the saxophone for her health and commissioned various works from French composers to provide herself with a repertoire. In 1904 she played in Paris the Choral varié that Vincent d'Indy had written for her, and Debussy claimed it quite ridiculous to see a lady in a pink frock playing such a clumsy instrument. In a letter the year before to his friend, the writer Pierre Louÿs, he excuses himself for any delay in writing by his preoccupation with the composition of a work he describes as a Fantaisie, for which he had been paid over a year before, the fee long since eaten up. 'For some days', he writes, '…I am the-man-who-is-­working-on-a-fantasy-for-alto-saxophone-in-E-­flat - try and say that without breathing.' 'The Saxophone' he continues, 'is a reed animal of whose habits I know little: does it favour the romantic sweetness of the clarinet or the slightly coarse irony of the sarrusophone, a double bassoon…?'Debussy finally allowed it to play melancholy phrases under the rolling of a military drum and named the piece Rapsodie arabe, rewarding Mrs. Hall's patience with a work that bears the unmistakable mark of Debussy at the height of his evocative powers.

In the hands of the French composer Jacques Ibert, a master of woodwind textures, various uses were found for the saxophone in music for the theatre and the concert hall. His Concertino da camera was written in 1935, two years before the composer's appointment as director of the Académie de France in Rome, a position he retained until 1960. The Saxophone Chamber Concertino demonstrates Ibert's fine command of instrumentation and a lightness of touch that conceals a depth of feeling, heard particularly in the slow movement, its poignant expressiveness magically dispelled in a final rapid jeu d'esprit.

Maurice Ravel's orchestration of the Russian composer Mussorgsky's piano suite, Pictures at an Exhibition, provided the saxophone with one of its most evocative solos in the modern orchestral repertoire. In this movement, the saxophone offers an antique, melancholy serenade outside the walls of the old castle. Sohre Rahbari concludes the disc with an improvisation for saxophone in Japanese style, making use of techniques of playing long familiar in Japanese music but with a certain novelty in Western terms.

Keith Anderson


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