Music for Saxophone and Piano by Rueff, Anderson, Heiden, Davis, Feld

Kenneth Fischer, saxophone
Martha Thomas, piano

Aca Digital Recording

Surprising to think at this late date that the saxophone should still be looking for respectability as a solo classical instrument, at least in some circles. You would certainly have gotten an argument on that score from the late Kenneth Fischer (d. December 9, 2009) whose masterful, virtuosic performances on the present program make the strongest possible case for the instrument. Together with his frequent recital partner Martha Thomas, Fischer gives a veritable clinic in the extraordinary things that all his saxophones – alto, soprano, and Eb – can be made to do.

Chanson et Passepied by French composer Jeanine Rueff (b.1922) leads off the program in fine style with its charming, arching melody that is re-cast in dance time in the second half by changing the meter and tempo. It’s followed by the two Sonatas for Alto Saxophone and Piano by Tommy Joe Anderson (b.1947), both characterized by pithy expression and a wise economy of means. No. 1 is basically a serial composition based on the hexachord Eb-G-E-A-D-Bb. My favorite section of this rhythmically alert piece is the third, marked “Fast, with a jazzy feeling.” Sonata No. 2 is marked by confrontation between the two instruments, in which sax and piano react to each other’s points of contention, with some scope allowed for controlled aleatoric measures. (If you think I’m going to define “aleatoric,” you’re nuts: look it up!)

The oldest work on the program, and the one that most consistently has the “feel” of a modern classic, is the 1937 Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano by Bernhard Heiden (1910-2000). The composer studied with Paul Hindemith, and this was one of his first compositions after leaving Germany. The jaunty, bluesy mood of this music reminds us what a hotbed Berlin was for creative modernism in all the arts just prior to the rise of the Third Reich. Highly melodic and flavorfully dissonant, with its remote tone centers and richly chromatic melodies, this engaging work has a nice swing to it that Fischer and Thomas never fail to communicate.

I’m not nearly as fond of Declaration for Soprano Saxophone and Piano by William Davis (b.1948) with its strangulated sounds resulting from such compositional techniques as timbre alternation on a single note, quarter notes, and, especially, saxophone multiphonics. The latter can be very hard to listen to, particularly in the repeated references to the motif BACH (that is, Bb-A-C-B) that, in the context, sound more satirical than reverential. (Come to think of it, J.S. Bach, who was known in his day for his hot temper, once challenged a bassoonist to a swordfight for playing his instrument like a “nanny goat.” One shudders to think what he might have done to Davis, were he still living!) At least we can say that Fischer’s technique here is really impressive, and Thomas has some fine moments with inside-the-piano multiphonics. Still, one has to wonder what Davis had in mind with this 15-minute rhapsody in a single movement.

I’ve never warmed up to the music of Czech composer Jindrich Feld (1925-2007) whose unique way with 12-tone composition, used here in a non-conventional way that eschews the use of strict tone rows, other listeners have found engaging. His Élégie for Soprano Saxophone and Piano struck me, on the contrary, as rather hesitant in its terse expression. Still, I found four of six works on this program to be attractive and engaging, at least as Kenneth Fischer and Martha Thomas present them. At the end of the day, that’s not a bad average.

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