Tuesday 10 December 2019

From Dvorak to Reich: the Arcis Saxophone Quartet in American Dreams at Conway Hall

Arcis Saxophone Quartet (Jure Knez, Claus Hierluksch, Richarda Fuss, Edoardo Zotti) - Photo Harald Hoffmann
Arcis Saxophone Quartet
(Jure Knez, Claus Hierluksch, Richarda Fuss, Edoardo Zotti)
Photo Harald Hoffmann
American Dreams - Reich, Dvorak, Bernstein, Barber, Gershwin; Arcis Saxophone Quartet; Conway Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 8 December 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A young saxophone quartet brings an engagingly fresh approach to a century of music written by composers in America

Compared to most of the other classical instruments, the saxophone is quite a young instrument with a fascinating history, and whilst it has become synonymous with jazz, a separate classical tradition has grown up during the 20th and 21st centuries. On Sunday 8 December 2019, the Arcis Saxophone Quartet gave a concert, American Dreams, as part of the Conway Hall's Sunday concerts and beforehand I gave a preconcert talk on the curious history of the saxophone.

The Arcis Saxophone Quartet is a young group, founded in 2009 at the University of Music and Performing Arts, Munich. We heard, Claus Hierluksch, soprano, Richarda Fuss, alto, Edoardo Zotti, tenor and Jure Knez, baritone in a programme which brought an interesting freshness to the idea of repertoire, with Steve Reich's New York Counterpoint (from 1985, originally for clarinet and tape or 11 clarinets and bass clarinet), Antonin Dvorak's String Quartet No. 12 'American' (from 1893, originally for string quartet), Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story Suite (originally from 1957, heard in the group's own arrangement for saxophone quartet), Samuel Barber's Adagio (from 1936, originally for string quartet) and George Gershwin' s Porgy and Bess Suite, arranged by Sylvain Dedenon.

For the Steve Reich, we had four saxophones and tape, with the live players stood in front of the stage and the speakers playing the pre-recorded sections on the stage. Sitting in the balcony of the Conway Hall it was at times difficult to tell what was live and what was recorded. The result started with a seductive throbbing, before moving into a series of interestingly rhythmically complex sections where the different lines interlaced with each other. This might not have been Reich's intended instrumental line-up for the piece, but in a performance as dramatic and as technically poised as this, the result was a very New York sort of sound.

The group followed this with a very striking transcription, playing Dvorak's American string quartet. There is no denying that though the saxophone is a very mobile, flexible instrument there were times when the musical line felt less subtle in its details, particularly in the lower instruments. But the art of any good transcription is to make you forget the original, and to discover new qualities in the music via the new version. And this the Arcis Saxophone Quartet did, very quickly I was listening to their playing on its own terms, rather than constantly referring to a mythical string original in my head. The opening movement introduced us to an intriguing new sound world, and one where the instruments could be surprisingly mobile with a nice fluidity or perhaps liquidity to the sound. The opening of the slow movement was a haunting, almost eerie soprano saxophone solo which set the atmosphere for the whole movement. In the scherzo the saxophones had a very different effect than strings, in terms of emotional effect, but it was very effective and rather striking. And we ended with a rather jazzy, up-tempo and fun final movement.

After the interval we had a suite of seven movements from Bernstein's West Side Story, 'Jet Song', 'Promenade', 'Mambo', 'Cha Cha Cha', 'Balcony Scene/Tonight', 'I Feel Pretty', 'America', played with a nice sense of swing, with some lovely detail. The sound of the saxophone is more central to the pit band for the post-War musicals, but here we had not a saxophone section but just four yet the group's imaginative arrangement kept the performance true to the original whilst bringing out some interesting saxophone qualities.

Samuel Barber's Adagio has become relatively ubiquitous, any performance has to have a concentrated, stripped back intensity to bring your attention back to the music itself rather than the extraneous non-musical references. The problem for the saxophone quartet was that the sound-world they invoked was a little too close to the muzak versions of the piece played in lifts. For all the group's high degree of technical expertise, when listening to the Barber (unlike in the Dvorak) it was never quite possible to forget that this was a group of saxophones playing music for a string quartet.

For the final item on the programme, the players did away with music stands and played from memory. Sylvain Dedenon's arrangement of Gershwin's melodies from Porgy and Bess was pretty straight, we had movements dedicated to 'Jasbo Brown', 'Summertime', 'There's a Boat Leaving Soon' and 'It Ain't Necessarily So', in which the melody was presented directly and then elaborated in an interesting and not necessarily straightforward fashion. Only in the 'Finale' did Dedenon throw a number of melodies into the mix and indulge in some more complex creative elements. The result was played with panache by the young quartet.

The Conway Hall was very full for the concert, and the audience was very enthusiastic, and we were rewarded with an encore.

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