Saxophone Quartet leaps from Mozart to Gershwin

Works reviewed: 
Quintet for Piano and Wind Instruments in Eb, K. 452, W.A. Mozart
Lullaby, George Gershwin
Histoire du tango (1991), Astor Piazzolla
Saxophone Quartet, Lukas Foss
Fast Walk (1991), Daniel Dorff
December Drive (1993), Russ Carere
Buffalo News
Buffalo, NY
Jan 24 1994
Herman Trotter

In this concert the Amherst Saxophone Quartet's journey from Mozart to modern turns out to be one big leap from 1784, when Mozart's Quintet for Piano and Winds in E-Flat, K452 was composed, to 1920, the year George Gershwin wrote his long buried "Lullaby" for string quartet whose premiere waited until 1967.

Given the instrumentation of those two works, it's obvious that some transcribing had to be done before the ASQ could get its collective chops on the music.

In 1987 Leo Smit obliged with the Mozart quintet, deftly reassigning the oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon lines to the soprano through baritone saxes. In the process the pungent textures provided by the more tightly focused double reeds and clarinet is lost, and the Smit transcription provides instead an interplay of the piano against the more sonorous body of saxes.

It's a different view of the work. And since it's one of Mozart's top drawer scores it still holds a lot of interest, but not so much as in the more piquant original. In any case, Sunday's performance is best dismissed because the piano was in such bad condition. Claudia Hoca is an elegant pianist. She kept the lyrical line well shaped but could do nothing about the twangy, out of tune sound. Presumably the pianos for the next two performances will be better.

Gershwin's "Lullaby" was very effectively transcribed by the quartet's Stephen Rosenthal. The teasingly modulating melodic line was played with just the right amount of stress and expressiveness, making it winningly sentimental but not schmaltzy, while the scoring for saxes gave the sound a smoothly crooning quality.

Astor Piazzolla's "History of the Tango" had made a very engrossing concert opener. In 30-year' jumps its four movements trace the development of the tango from a "1900 Bordello" to a "Concert of Today." Happily chirping off-beat counterpoint gave way to a languorous and probing slow section which almost succumbed to, the blues, followed by a turn to more blatantly syncopated rhythms and a raucous finale which seemed an updated extrapolation of the first section. The performance was amazingly vital and precise, even in the trickiest rhythms and at the most elevated tempos.

If anything, even more stunning virtuosity surfaced in the other major work, Lukas Foss' Saxophone Quartet, written for the ASQ in 1985. It has a formal four-movement structure, but in the overview it seems to set up contrasts between slowly shifting, exquisitely consonant chord patterns and punctuating or interpolated angular bursts of random pointillist sounds. These repeated contrasts give a very stark but mesmerizing quality to the 12-minute work.

The customary concluding group of shorter, upbeat selections included Daniel Dorffs 1991 "Fast Walk," which followed the Gershwin and made a nice antidote to its dreaminess with an animated, chattery and positive ambience.

There was also the apparent premiere of ASQ member Russ Carere's "December Drive," mildly syncopated at first but growing almost frenetically jazzy, plus Scott Joplin's "Elite Syncopations" and "Rigamarole Rag" by Artie Matthews, a signature specialty with this ensemble.

Saxophone Quartet leaps from Mozart to Gershwin