Wednesday 20 April 2022

The Saxophone Craze: saxophonist Jonathan Radford and pianist Ashley Fripp launch

Jonathan Radford and Ashley Fripp at Champs Hill Music Room (Photo Patrick Allen)
Jonathan Radford and Ashley Fripp at Champs Hill Music Room (Photo Patrick Allen)

The Saxophone Craze: Homage to Rudy Wiedoeft
 - Wiedoeft, Schulhoff, Weill; Jonathan Radford, Ashley Fripp; Royal Over-Seas League, London
19 April 2022, (★★★★)
An homage to a seminal, yet near-forgotten figure and a celebration of how the saxophone went mainstream in the 1920s

Saxophonist Jonathan Radford and pianist Ashley Fripp's disc, The Saxophone Craze was issued on Champs Hill Records earlier this month. Radford's debut recording, the disc is a sort of homage to a near forgotten figure, 1920s saxophonist Rudy Wiedoeft whose combination of technical virtuosity, salesmanship and sheer joie de vivre (along with his 300 recordings) helped to fuel the saxophone craze that swept America during the 1920s. The decade might have roared but it did so to the sound of the saxophone, thanks to Wiedoeft who effectively transformed it from a novelty instrument to something to be taken seriously.

Jonathan Radford won the Gold Medal at the 2018 Royal Over-Seas League Competition and last night, Tuesday 19 April 2022, Radford and Ashley Fripp launched the disc with a concert at the Royal Over-Seas League in London, performing Erwin Schulhoff's Hot-Sonate, their own arrangement of music from Kurt Weill's Die Dreigroschenoper, plus music by Wiedoeft.

We began with a pair of Wiedoeft's own pieces, first his arrangement of the Danse Hongroise by Justin Ring and Fred Hager (an American writing duo that started out in ragtime in the early 20th century). A piece that moved from grand romantic style in the introduction to a perky Hungarian dance with some brilliant playing from Radford. Great fun. Rudy Wiedoeft and Domenico Savino's Dans l'orient definitely has strong classical influences (Savino was a conductor with a nice line in semi-classical pieces). Debussy wasn't far away as the saxophone introduced an evocative slow melody, and it really showcased Radford's lovely mellow, warm tone.

They followed this with a more substantial piece; not one associated with Wiedoeft, but reflective of the more general saxophone craze and the way serious classical composers adopted the instrument. Erwin Schulhoff's Hot-Sonate, written in 1930, marries jazz rhythms and style to the classical sonata, and showcases the saxophone as a classical instrument, perhaps the first major work to do so. The first movement marries a perky piano part to a sexy saxophone line, creating something cabaret-esque yet with spiky elements. The sound world was very much about the contrasts between the saxophone's silky legato and the piano rhythms. The faster second movement, whilst still jazz-inspired, featured some dazzling rhythms and finger-work from Radford;  a movement full of vigour and changeable in mood. The third movement was simply a sleazy blues, wonderfully atmospheric, whilst the final movement's catchy rhythms rather evoked for me the music of Darius Milhaud from the same period.

We then returned to Wiedoeft for his Valse Marilyn, a fabulously swaying waltz that worked itself up into quite a frenzy.

Finally Radford and Fripp's suite of music arranged from Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera. This was inspired by Weill's own 1929 arrangement of music from the opera for wind band, the Kleine Dreigroschenmusik (premiered by Otto Klemperer no less). Fripp explained that in their version they had tried to keep the rhythmic complexity of Weill's original. We heard five movements, Die Moritat von Mackie Messer, Die Ballade vom angenehmen Leben, Pollys Lied, Zuhaelterballade, and Kanonen Song. We began with crisp piano rhythms and a fabulously seductive saxophone. and throughout the suite this combination really came to the fore. The second movement's sleaze moved into more bittersweet melancholy (and lovely phrasing) of the third, whilst the fourth movement gave Fripp's piano a chance to sing with lovely saxophone figurations over the top. The final movement was vividly vigorous, an energetic duet between the two instruments with a sense of unstoppable impulse.

The disc includes a further work by Wiedoeft, a waltz from Shostakovich's Suite for Variety Orchestra and Jun Nagao's arrangement of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. In 1926 Wiedoeft travelled to London with the pianist Oscar Levant, a noted early interpreter of Rhapsody in Blue. They performed at the Prince’s Hotel on Jermyn Street during the Summer season, and Levant gave a private performance of Rhapsody in Blue for the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VIII.

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