DEBUSSY(arr. Arends) String Quartet. RAVEL (arr. van der Linden) String Quartet. ROUSSEL (arr. Arends/van der Linden) String Quartet. BOZZARead moreAndante and Scherzo. DESENCLOS Saxophone Quartet. FRANÇAIX Petit quatuor. RIVIER Grave et presto. SCHMITT Saxophone Quartet. PIERNÉ Introduction and Variations “sur une ronde populaire”
Fanciers of music for saxophone quartet will already know these recordings, as the two CDs appeared in 1990 and 1991, respectively, on the Et’cetera label. These are now reissued on the Aurelia Saxophone Quartet’s current label, Challenge, to celebrate the Quartet’s 25th anniversary. They join nine other excellent but increasingly hard-to-find CDs in the listing on the Quartet’s Web site. The difficulty is perplexing, as the Aurelia Quartet is one of the great saxophone quartets playing today, with technique to burn—some of the effects amaze after almost two decades of acquaintance—and a collective sensitivity to color, nuance, and line that is comparable to the very finest of string quartets.
That analogy brings us, for those unfamiliar with these discs, to the first. Arrangements of works for saxophone are common enough—the repertoire for recitals has to come from somewhere—but the idea of transcribing string quartets, and these impressionist masterpieces in particular, met with some skepticism. The Aurelia arrangements, made by members of the Quartet, silenced most objections with their sensitivity and faithfulness, as well as their ingenuity. Few others have tried to match the feat since. The Linos Saxophone Quartet’s Debussy on Musicaphon 56861 is a notable exception, but even this excellent ensemble fails to match the sheer musicality and technical wizardry exhibited here. Listen to the precision of the bold attacks, or the delicate beauty of the fluttering undulations, or the astounding ascents in alt by soprano saxophonist Johan van der Linden, or the subtle interplay of the lines, and realize just what an amazing range of sounds and textures the saxophone quartet can achieve in the hands of masters.
The second disc consists of mid-20th century works written specifically for saxophone quartet. All were commissioned by Marcel Mule, the founder of the French school of saxophone playing and a tireless advocate for the classical saxophone. These are now standard repertoire, though most, with the exception of the Françaix Petit quatuor, are not easy to find on CD. With this reissue that is no longer a problem, since these are all supremely fine performances, from the angular (but tonal) modernism of the Schmitt to the delightful good humor of the Françaix and Pierné.
Those for whom these discs are terra incognita are encouraged to make their acquaintance as soon as possible. The sound is top drawer, the Quartet (need I say it again?) among the very finest, and the repertoire indispensible. They are identical in every way to the original Et’cetera issues, so current owners need not make another purchase unless they wish to encourage Challenge Classics to get those other CDs in their and Vanguard’s catalog back into circulation. And while we are asking, could EMI or some enterprising licensing company make the Quartet’s Gershwin/Mussorgsky disc available again?