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Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International

"Toulouse-Lautrec’s Loie Fuller graces the cover of this CD evoking a fin-de-siècle atmosphere most appropriate for Debussy’s 1908 Rapsodie. Elsewhere we range from Milhaud’s commedia dell’arte and Ibert’s bustling syncopation through Villa-Lobos’s nocturnal reflection and Glazunov’s ripe romanticism to Karamessini’s spanking new ceremonial drama. The saxophone, alto and soprano, takes on many guises here; prankster and trickster, romantic and saturnine, crepuscular, balletic, acrobatic, avuncular or Dionysian – there’s plenty of ground to cover.

Debussy’s Rapsodie was written in 1908 but the scoring was only undertaken after his death by Roger-Ducasse in 1919. Its nocturne grows sultry, the saxophone embedded in the score, taking a primus inter pares role for some of the time – note Debussy’s explicit title - and flecking it with distinctive cries. Milhaud’s Scaramouche is better known in its two piano version. Vivacious and vital, its rhythmic élan is unstoppable; its samba finale with chugging rhythm two and a half minutes of, as Milhaud writes in the movement heading, Brazileira. Ibert’s Concertino was written for one of the leading players of the day, Sigurd Rascher, for whom Glazunov wrote his concerto and Eric Coates his Saxo-Rhapsody amongst a number of other composers (Rascher’s superb performance of the Coates is on a Pearl CD). Written in 1935 and contemporary with the Coates and Milhaud works it is vaguely Ravelian with a busy, forward moving solo line. There’s a considerable amount of syncopation and drive and I would agree that the Concertino was influenced by the – considerable – amount of good Jazz to be found in Paris in the 1920s and 30s – rather than being in any way explicitly a jazz work. The Larghetto is pleasant – in the main slow movements here are elegant without being deep – but the finale much sprightlier. Its brisk, neo-classical motor threatens fugal overload but bustles defiantly on to the end.

Villa-Lobos’ Fantasia was written for either soprano or tenor saxophone though most players take the former option. It was dedicated to the dean of French saxophonists Marcel Mule (an album currently devoted to Mule is available entitled ‘Le Patron of the Saxophone’ – Clarinet Classics CC0013 - and includes the Ibert Concertino dedicated to Mule’s rival Rascher. Mule disapproved of the high notes Ibert interpolated at Rascher’s request). Rhythmically diverse with slight ritardandos to relax into brief moments of romantic expression the brisk opening movement gives way to a nocturnal second movement introduced by solo viola. The finale runs the gamut of fleet fingered virtuosity – from quick runs to high octane trills – in an explosive passage of spirited enjoyment. After these joyful games the Glazunov seems as if written in another age - which in a sense it was. It carries with it the whiff of his Violin Concerto and is lush, romantic, delightfully scored and unashamed to allow the strings their moment of effulgent romanticism at 6.50 of this one-movement, nearly fifteen minute work, the longest of the six. I first heard it on Felix Slovácek’s Supraphon disc of 1980 and its charm never stales. The occasionally discursive but animated cadenza is excellently negotiated by Theodore Kerkezos and that noble fugal ending incisively done as well. Finally to the Karamessini. Greek born she holds a doctorate in Composition from the University of Sussex having earlier graduated from Berklee and has composed widely. Her taut but incident-packed work runs for fourteen minutes. Inspired by the Dionysian and Apollonian spirits the saxophone becomes part of the fabric of the argument assuming a "transfigurative" role. The work has rather a ceremonial, hieratic feel. There is some splendidly surly orchestral writing in the opening movement notable for its lines for solo violin and "overblown" saxophone. Colourful and affirmatory the second movement leads on to a dramatic and sonorous brass capped conclusion, full of processional vigour.

Excellent performances here from the Philharmonia under Martyn Brabbins and a soloist of considerable presence – and an enticing programme as well. This is a well-filled infectious delight."

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