First-rate show by Amherst sax group

Works reviewed: 
Quartet in C Major, K. 465, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Quatuor pour Saxophones, Alfred Desenclos
Quatuor pour Saxophones, Op. 102, Florent Schmitt
Quatuor pour saxophones, op. 31, Jean Absil
Cape Cod Times
Wellfleet, MA
Feb 22 2005

Clarity prevailed, in the transcription of Mozart's String Quartet in C Major, K. 465. This is Mozart at his "naughty boy" best.

A major figure in the symphonic clarinet world once sneeringly pronounced, "No gentleman ever plays the saxophone." This now iconic figure has since departed, but had he heard the four gentleman constituting the Amherst Saxophone Quartet Sunday at the First Congregational Church in Wellfleet, he would have been quickly disabused of his remark.

An ensemble of soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxophonists, the quartet is in its 27th year, has played more than 500 works written specifically for their instrumentation (not including transcriptions) and has appeared in major venues throughout this country and overseas. It would be inaccurate to dismiss this group as less than a first-rate chamber music ensemble comparable to the best small string ensembles.

In writing his "Octet for Wind Instruments," Stravinsky observed, "I remember what a great effort it cost me to establish an ensemble of eight wind instruments so that they should not overwhelm the listeners with a great display of tone." Unlike a string quartet, which has an inherent transparency, giving the listener the opportunity to hear clearly all four voices, four richly toned wind instruments provide a challenge to both players and omposers to "not overwhelm the listeners with a great display of tone."

But clarity prevailed throughout Sunday's concert, particularly in the transcription of Mozart's String Quartet in C Major, K. 465, the socalled "Dissonant" due to the stretched harmonies of its introduction. This is Mozart at his "naughty boy"best, having fun with his listeners, putting them on. All four players are virtuoso masters of their instruments, and baritone player Harry Fackelman was especially polished in his rendition of the original cello line.

Stephen Rosenthal plays the soprano saxophone, the highest of the four saxes, and is the leader and spokesman of the group. The soprano instrument is notoriously difficult to play in tune. Not only was Rosenthal's intonation virtually impeccable, but also he brought to the highest notes of his instrument the sweet focus and center of the upper registers of a rarely heard but elegantly played clarinet in its highest tessitura.

By virtue of the French concept of wind playing, which embodies a lighter, brighter and more incisive sound, French composers are particularly suited for writing for wind ensembles. The works by Alfred Desenclos (1912-1971) and Florent Schmitt (1870-1958) incorporated that elusive quality of transparency and the ebullience of the French school. The quartet was at its best in the snappy, articulated passages, with rapid passing back and forth among the four instruments.

Adolphe Sax, a Belgian, invented the saxophone around 1840, so it was particularly fitting that Belgian composer Jean Absil's "Quatour pour Saxophones, Op. 31" end the program. Perhaps the least-telling piece on the program, it did provide opportunity to hear in solo passages the beautiful tone and technique of alto saxophonist David Yusko. Tenor player Yevgeny Dokschuvsky played an effective and pivotal role in providing a link between the baritone and alto parts throughout the concert.

With the scores of young schoolchildren playing saxophone on the Cape, it would seem to be a missed opportunity not to bring the Amherst ensemble back and gather those young tyros together at some place to hear this extraordinary group.

First-rate show by Amherst sax group