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Glass, Gotkovsky, Escaich: Saxophone Quartets / Oasis Quartet

Release Date: 02/22/2011 
Label:  Innova   Catalog #: 744   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Philip GlassThierry EscaichIda Gotkovsky
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Oasis Quartet (Saxophone Quartet)
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 0 Hours 56 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

GLASS String Quartet No. 3, “Mishima.” ESCAICH Le Bal. GOTKOVSKY Saxophone Quartet Oasis Qrt INNOVA 744 (55:44)

The members of the Oasis Quartet—Nathan Nabb, James Bunte, David Camwell, and James Romain, hailing primarily from Iowa—combine a wide variety of symphonic, chamber, and solo performance experience, both classical and jazz. Since the group’s Read more formation in 2005, they have molded that diversity into a most impressive ensemble, their performances meticulous, vital, responsive to nuance, and tonally rich. Their selection of repertoire for their first CD presents a satisfying program of tonally conservative and emotionally engaging contemporary compositions.

Philip Glass’s acknowledged influences include Bach and Mozart—a legacy of his study in Paris with Nadia Boulanger—as well as Indian classical artists Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha, and experimental film and theater. All of those come together in his score for Paul Schrader’s 1985 film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters , a stylized exploration of the life of brilliant and disturbed neo-samurai Japanese author Yukio Mishima. That score incorporates by design the String Quartet No. 3: haunting music, classical in its emphasis on order and restraint. The six movements—all but the second—take their titles from the flashback scenes of Mishima’s life that they accompany. The steady, flowing execution of the repetitive figures, written for and originally recorded by the Kronos Quartet, is hard enough for string players to achieve. For wind players it is even more daunting, which makes the Oasis Quartet’s precision—even passagework, uniformity of tone, seamless line, and unfailing balance and intonation—most impressive. While soprano saxophonist Nabb’s arrangement would not be a replacement for the original version for most listeners—the strings easily create an inward quality that the brassier saxophone is ill-equipped to emulate—it is compelling in its own right and the more articulated quality of the wind instruments is quite effective in the opening “1957: Award Montage” and the ebullient “Grandma and Kimitake.” A more measured last movement could convey the ultimate pathos more tellingly—the Kronos Quartet takes more than three minutes to the Oasis’s less than two and-one-half—but that is the only real quibble.

French composer Thierry Escaich, organist of Duruflé’s St-Etienne-du-Mont in Paris, describes his Le Bal as “a contemporary reinvention of J. S. Bach’s style” and a “modern conception of a dance suite.” Without reading the notes, it seems unlikely that description of the work would have suggested itself. Dance rhythms are certainly core to the work, beginning with the percussive baritone sax slap tongue under the anxious opening theme. There are waltzes and tangos, and a wildly manic ending built on the opening motif, but it is more unsettled narrative than light diversion, emotionally closer to Ravel’s cataclysmic La Valse than any Baroque suite. With the rock and jazz influences, and occasional faux electronic sounds, this could be a score for a suspenseful urban-angst ballet. Escaich is well known as an improviser at the organ, and there is a marvelous improvisatory feel to this eclectic but fully integrated work, as well as an impressive exploitation of the expressive capabilities of the saxophone ensemble. It is an exciting work and a virtuoso challenge well met by the Oasis four.

Another French composer, Ida Gotkovsky, like Glass a student of Boulanger, provides the last and arguably most challenging work on a CD of challenging works—for the quartet, that is, not the listener. Her Saxophone Quartet is, in fact, a work of somewhat old-fashioned charm and beauty, alternately delicate and humorous, and startling in the technical demands it places on the players. In an earlier review I preferred the Saxofon Concentus recording for its “understatement and exquisite balance.” That Simax recording is still available, and remains the first choice, though the Oasis performance warrants a warm recommendation. There is mystery, poignancy, and in the well-known finale, dexterity which, while not the equal of the extraordinary Norwegians, is still quite remarkable.

Collectors should note however that Oasis uses the older five-movement version of the score, which does not include the energetic Saltarelle. That movement, added by Gotkovsky sometime after the publication of the five-movement version in 1983 and 1988, provides important tempo and stylistic contrast between the two central slow movements. The 1996 Saxofon Concentus recording, the 1991 recording by Quatuor Diastema on Corelia, and the more recent H2 Quartet recording (2008) on Blue Griffin all use the six-movement score. Since the Saltarelle was published in 2007, the recordings preceding that date presumably used a manuscript known to have circulated. It is worth mentioning that the quartets that recorded the fuller version before publication were European. I have been told that the movement was largely unknown in this country until fairly recently, and the only version available has been the five-movement. In fact, a new recording by the American Zzyzx Quartet on Teal Creek uses the earlier version as well. I mention all this since some will, as I do, prefer the six-movement version and will want to know—despite what some download sources are indicating—that this is not that version.

The recording itself is rather close up, which is most noticeable in the Gotkovsky, where the lower dynamic reveals breathing and key clicks. Still, there is ambience enough to suggest a space around the players, and the immediacy is an asset in the more extrovert works. Overall, this is a most desirable CD. The Saxofon Concentus must be heard for the Gotkovsky quartet, but don’t let that keep you away from this fine release.

FANFARE: Ronald E. Grames
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Works on This Recording

Quartet for Strings no 3 "Mishima" by Philip Glass
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Oasis Quartet (Saxophone Quartet)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1985; USA 
Length: 13 Minutes 39 Secs. 
Le Bal, for 4 saxophones by Thierry Escaich
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Oasis Quartet (Saxophone Quartet)
Period: Contemporary 
Length: 11 Minutes 26 Secs. 
Quartet for Saxophone by Ida Gotkovsky
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Oasis Quartet (Saxophone Quartet)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: France 
Length: 28 Minutes 35 Secs. 

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