About this Recording

American Saxophone Music
Quate • Creston • Rorem • Hartley • Hovhaness • Muczynski • Wiedoeft


Although it was the brainchild of a Belgian inventor, Adolphe Sax, the saxophone is commonly thought of as the quintessential American instrument, not least for the pivotal rôle it has played in jazz during key stages of the music's evolution. Its acceptance in classical music has been more gradual, with, once again, American musicians playing a major part. With one exception, the works on this disc are all written for the alto instrument, their divergent idioms reflecting those of the composers, as well as the artists for whom they were created.

A graduate from University of North Texas, Amy Quate (b. 1953) has pursued a varied career which, in addition to her work as a composer, includes computer graphics, video, and interactive multimedia design. Light of Sothis (1982) is dedicated to Debra Richtmeyer. Sothis, the ancient Egyptian name for Sirius, is the brightest star in heaven. Its first appearance each year, just before the annual flooding of the river Nile, was of great importance to the Egyptians, as it symbolized for them the cycles of nature bringing beauty, prosperity and life. The first movement, 'Grace', opens with an expressive saxophone melody over a limpid piano accompaniment; the melodic writing becoming more animated as the music proceeds. The second movement, 'Passion', is more demonstrative, apart from a ruminative cadenza-like passage for saxophone that leads directly into the final movement, 'Faith'. An amalgam of the earlier movements, this concludes with gentle piano chords derived from those at the very beginning.

Paul Creston (1906-85) was self-taught as a composer. His work tends to be tonal in idiom, with a strong rhythmic element, and includes both a Concerto and a Rhapsody for alto saxophone. The Sonata was written in 1939 for the American saxophonist Cecil Leeson. The vigorous first movement contrasts lively and expressive main themes, expanded on each re-appearance so that the music intensifies without the need for orthodox sonata-form. The tranquil central movement opens with a poignant melody for piano, over which the saxophone adds a lyrical counter-melody that gradually builds to an emotional apex, before it winds back to the initial mood. The gay finale features quick-witted writing for the saxophone over a lightly-tripping piano accompaniment, though with a more ruminative theme as expressive contrast and a spirited dash through to the end.

Ned Rorem (b. 1923) is a noted American composer and diarist, best known for several hundred songs, though his orchestral and chamber output has also won acclaim. Picnic on the Marne was commissioned by the Concert Artists Guild for the British saxophonist John Harle, and first performed by him and John Lenehan on 14 February 1984 at Carnegie Recital Hall in New York. As the composer himself recalled, "On June 30th 1956, I visited the southeastern suburbs of Paris with another person. These pieces recollect that afternoon, 109 seasons later". Beginning with the headlong (and seemingly hazard-ridden!) 'Driving from Paris', the music relaxes into a more soulful manner when it encounters 'A Bend in the River' - a pastoral evocation that finds its suave urban equivalent in the stylized dance of 'Bal Musette'. A soulful, laid-back atmosphere is not at all inappropriate for 'Vermouth', the suite reaching its climax in the relatively lengthy 'A Tense Discussion', with its confrontation between voluble saxophone and detached piano, before accumulated tension is dispersed in the hectic interplay of 'Making Up'. 'The Ride Back to Town' then provides an ending of a decidedly, but hardly surprisingly, reflective demeanour.

Walter Hartley (b. 1927) began to write music when only five and seriously dedicated himself to composition at sixteen. A graduate of the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester, from whom he received his PhD in 1953, his list of acknowledged works (since 1949) runs to over 300, many of which have been published and recorded. The Sonata for Baritone Saxophone was written in 1976 for Lynn Klock, an ardent advocate of new music. The opening movement juxtaposes two types of music and motion, a gauntly rhetorical Andante and a forceful Allegro, over two larger spans that (as with the Creston) effectively substitute for the dynamic of sonata-form. The relatively brief Adagio is a grave monologue for saxophone over portentous piano chords, while the finale, proceeding without pause, is a vigorous and angular fugato which, though not without a more pensive central section, drives forward to reach a curt conclusion.

Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000) was an American composer of Armenian-Scottish descent. His music is individual yet accessible, frequently drawing on aspects of Eastern spirituality to evoke a mood of mystery or contemplation. He was also among the most prolific composers of the twentieth century, composing 67 symphonies as part of an output that runs to over 400 works. The Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Guitar (1976) is typical of his mature thinking at its most compact. The courtly restraint of the Adagio's guitar introduction presages a plaintive soliloquy for saxophone, after which the central movement finds the latter on its own in an evocative solo. The finale returns to the initial manner, ending the piece in a mood of wistful melancholy.

Robert Muczynski (b. 1929) studied composition with Alexander Tcherepnin at DePaul University, Chicago. At the age of 29 he made his New York début as a pianist at Carnegie Recital Hall, performing his own compositions. The recipient of many honours, he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for the Alto Saxophone Concerto. His Sonata for that instrument (1970) is cast in two short movements. The first movement opens in a mood of expansive lyricism, taking on a more ambivalent demeanour as it reaches a series of brief climaxes, before closing on a note of regret. In terms of content and character, the second movement is its complete antithesis: a driving toccata, alive with syncopation and rhythmic intricacies, and which proceeds with minimal uncertainty to a dynamic and also decisive conclusion.

Rudy Wiedoeft (1893-1940) came from a large family of musicians. He began his career as a violinist, but switched first to the clarinet, then saxophone and, in 1918, arrived in New York where he began the series of Edison recordings that lead to his worldwide fame, Sax-o-phobia becoming the biggest-selling solo in the instrument's history. His later years blighted by disastrous mining speculations, as well as a tempestuous personal life, Wiedoeft died from cirrhosis of the liver at the age of only 46. Valse Vanité (1923) is typical of the confections with which he charmed and delighted his audiences. The briefest piano introduction, and the saxophone is away with a melody evoking the style and sophistication of the 'jazz age' in American culture. The piece unfolds as a series of gently contrasting episodes, much in the manner of a Viennese waltz, with the main theme acting as a refrain whose final appearance sees the music to its close on a flourish.

Richard Whitehouse
(with thanks to Alex Mitchell)

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