MARTYRS FOR THE FAITH • Kenneth Tse (alto saxophone); Richard Mark Heidel, Ray Cramer (cond1); U of Iowa S Band • MSR 1359 (78:15)
CRESTON Alto Saxophone Concerto. 1CANFIELD Martyrs for the Faith. CHEETHAM Concerto Agrariana. DAHL Read more class="ARIAL12b">Alto Saxophone Concerto
It is undoubtedly a good and humbling thing for a critic to have to admit occasionally that we all come with biases and prejudices to this most subjective of occupations. It is a germane point here, as I approached this CD with a preconception regarding fellow Fanfare reviewer David DeBoor Canfield’s compositions, based, it must be said, on a rather limited sampling. I frankly expected to find Canfield’s work to be lightweight and somewhat derivative, but I am happy to report that it is nothing of the kind. This is a highly original work, despite the essentially—but not exclusively—traditional compositional language. It is also eclectic, which serves it and its subject well. Canfield’s concerto portrays three Christian martyrs, using themes that evoke the periods of history in which they lived. Polycarp is represented by a second-century hymn and faintly Middle Eastern secondary themes, and Gaspard de Coligny by a Huguenot hymn that underscores the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, with a swaggering march representing his self-righteous attackers. Jim Elliot, a 20th-century missionary to Ecuador, is characterized by the shifting meters of South American folk music and short quotes from the hymn We Rest in Thee. Extensive use of percussion, and the occasional use of extended techniques such as multiphonics and depictive growls and howls from the brass, add color.
John Cheetham’s four-movement Concerto Agrariana—like the Canfield work written for Kenneth Tse and receiving its premiere recording in this release—is less compelling. It is a pleasant enough work, but fairly conventional in form, with nice Grainger-like melodies of no great memorability. It is well constructed, though, and offers nice lyric showpiece opportunities for the soloist and effectively if not imaginatively uses the sonorities of the wind ensemble.
The 1941 Paul Creston Alto Saxophone Concerto, here performed in the 1948 Russell Howland arrangement for band, is also a disappointment, but I think this has more to do with interpretation than musical substance. Not that the Creston concerto is a great masterpiece, but it surely contains more wit, subtlety, and variety than is on display here. The high point of the work and this presentation of it is the Gershwinesque central movement. It perhaps owes too much to that composer’s Piano Concerto, but nonetheless offers a pleasant, gently swinging reverie. Otherwise, this performance presents little but technical show from the soloist, and there is much more to this charming period piece than that. Too bad there is no alternative recording at this time, especially in the superior original version for orchestra.
The most-interesting-work-on-the-program award goes to Ingolf Dahl’s 1949 neoclassical Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Wind Orchestra, much inspired by his close association with Stravinsky. It is heard in the final version of 1958–59, which tightened the work formally. That edition retains a 1953 reduction of forces to the size of a typical orchestral wind contingent, plus string bass and percussion, though a larger ensemble (53) is employed here. Alas, this performance is even more compromised than the Creston by unimaginative direction—surely the first two movements should be more monumental and the finale less inhibited—and by the band’s discomfort with the challenging writing. This is not ruinous, but the performance is stiff and cautious, and still never sufficiently precise. All-important wind solos are taken with little stylistic flair and too many complex chords are inaccurately tuned.
Too bad, as Kenneth Tse is an excellent soloist: His burnished tone lovely as always and his technique easily up to the demands placed on it. He sounds confined here; in different surroundings these could have been important recordings. The release is still worth obtaining for the three works it adds to the catalog. Perhaps if that is your need, the dim ensemble sound and overprominent soloist will be of secondary concern. However, if acquiring the Dahl concerto is your aim, you will want the altogether wonderful John Harle recording with Michael Tilson Thomas and the winds of the New World Symphony, either used/remaindered on Argo, or reissued on ArkivCD or PhoenixUSA.
Concerto for alto saxophone & band ("Agrariana")by John Cheetham Performer:
Kenneth Tse ()
Richard Mark Heidel
Period: Contemporary Written: 2003 Date of Recording: 10/2010 Venue: University of Iowa Memorial Union Length: 15 Minutes 18 Secs.
Concerto for Alto Saxophoneby Ingolf Dahl Performer:
Kenneth Tse ()
Richard Mark Heidel
Period: 20th Century Written: 1949/1953; USA Date of Recording: 11/2010 Venue: University of Iowa Memorial Union Length: 20 Minutes 28 Secs.