Tuesday 9 April 2024

A lovely evocation of stillness and calm: Alastair Penman's Quietude on his Meadowbank Music label

Quietude: Penman, Satie, Debussy, Humperdinck, Bruckner; Alastair Penman

Quietude: Penman, Satie, Debussy, Humperdinck, Bruckner; Alastair Penman
Reviewed 9 April 2024

A rather lovely disc that mixes Penman's own pieces with arrangements, all evoking stillness and calm allied to lovely tone and fine musicianship

Saxophonist Alastair Penman's latest release, Quietude is his second release on his Meadowbank Music label. The album features seven original compositions by Penman alongside eight new arrangements of well-known works ranging from Trois Gymnopédies by Erik Satie arranged for soprano saxophone and piano to Locus Iste by Anton Bruckner arranged for a choir of saxophones and clarinets, with Penman playing all the instruments, saxophones, clarinets, and keyboards.

We open with Penman's 2021 piece Rialto, featuring six alto saxophones creating some ravishing close harmony. Lyrical and completely gorgeous, the piece was originally written as a tuning challenge for a saxophone workshop Penman was giving. Be Still for soprano saxophone and tape has hints of an electronic re-mix of Satie, and you sense Satie's influence hovering over the whole album with its different evocations of quiet and stillness and calm.

Satie's Trois Gymnopédies come next, arranged for the combination of soprano saxophone (carrying the melody) and piano. I have to confess that I found the piano sound a bit too heavy and electronic seeming, and would have love to have heard these with Penman performing with an accompanist on an acoustic piano. But still, one cannot but love the way he creates sinuous yet creamy saxophone tone, unfolding the melody line with a sense of all the time in the world.

After the Fire is based on a shorter section of a pre-existing piece, here reworked for clarinet, keyboard and harp. So we have a rather evocative clarinet melody over a repeating accompanying figure that is more electronic than acoustic, but the whole has a nice laid-back jazz feel.

Beau Soir is an arrangement of Debussy's 1891 song, featuring alto clarinet instead of voice and an attractively evocative substitute it makes indeed. 

Homeward is another of Penman's own numbers, a soaring soprano saxophone melody over a fast repeating piano figure that gives the piece a nice combination of stasis and forward movement, though in the middle things come to a complete halt as the saxophone has a striking cadenza before moving on again. The title track, Quietude rather returns us to Satie territory, in an a hauntingly modern interpretation. Lament for an intriguing (and unspecified) instrumental combination, features a long breathed almost unison melody that develops into something quiet and rather Celtic.

Next come two of Mendelssohn's Songs without words, Op.30, numbers one and six. Both are exercises in the saxophone's creamy and seductive line, again, over moving keyboard accompaniment, with the second song being one of Mendelssohn's lovely Venetian-inspired boat songs. We turn to saxophone quartet, for Penman's lovely little arrangement of the Evening Prayer from Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel, an arrangement that makes a lot more of the underlying parts than the original does, creating something new and rather effective. Bruckner's Locus Iste is perhaps something more of a surprise. Penman originally sang it in a youth choir and here arranges it for clarinets and saxophones, to rather lovely effect.

We return to Penman's own music for the final number, A Prayer for Peace for, I think, saxophone quartet and this time the music has an intensity and underlying urgency to it that reflects Penman's commitment that lies beneath the music.

This is a rather delightful album, full of engagingly lovely music that sits well in the background yet is full of such musicianship that it repays attention. The sound quality has a very studio-bound feel with clear use of keyboards and programming and some of the pieces would have benefitted from a more acoustic treatment, but you have to credit Penman with not only conceiving of the album but playing the whole thing too.

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