J.S. BACH: Solo Cello Suites (6) – Andrew Dahlke, saxophones – Dahlmus (2 discs)

J.S. BACH: Solo Cello Suites (6) – Andrew Dahlke, saxophones – Dahlmus DR-10001/2, 151:29 (2 CDs) (4/6/15) ****:

I urge you non-saxophonists to not skip over this two disc (or MP3) collection of the heavenly Bach Suites for solo cello performed here on saxophones as a novelty or worse. Similarly, I do encourage all saxophonists to definitely check this out for the wonderful and inspirational listening experience that it is.

First, Andrew Dahlke is a wonderful musician and a renowned classical saxophonist. He is the former baritone sax player with the Capitol Quartet and performs regularly with the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Colorado Symphony and several other groups. He is a Professor of Saxophone at the University of Northern Colorado. Just one of the things that makes this recording so unique and desirable is that it is one of the only ever recorded versions which includes all six Suites and the only one played on the four main voices in the saxophone genus; soprano, alto, tenor and baritone.

Andrew has been an admirer and student of these works for years and he used the recordings by cellist Mstislav Rostropovich as a model for his own interpretation. The version by Pablo Casals has led a number of performers to use these iconic works as almost a standard for a performer’s endurance and artistry. The endurance aspect on saxophone is, arguably, an even greater feat.

This project has meant so much to Dahlke and he takes the work so seriously that he has also published his own transcriptions of these works in the original keys as well as a simple transcription to allow saxophonists to develop their own interpretations. As Dahlke points out in his booklet notes, there is a certain ‘improvisatory’ nature to these Suites which has always lent itself to the nuances and the phrasing of the performer.

The music itself bears no need for explanation or promotion. This is Bach; these are beautiful, meditative and tranquil works that are among the master’s best known and most ingenious creations. As for Dahlke’s performance it is similarly inspirational. His tone is beautiful even at the highest and lowest register of any of the instruments. Andy’s intonation is, of course, perfect at all times and saxophonists should rightfully be amazed at his ability to capture the feel of works that were intended as cello pieces.

For example, he uses an alto saxophone with a low A to give the actual pitch of a low C in the first two suites. In this case, it is a historic Selmer Mark VI alto Andy borrowed from the jazz master Dick Oatts. There are also some frankly amazing moments when double stops are called for on cello and Dahlke uses a blend of grace notes and even some occasional overtones to give the feel of chords and crossing strings.

Anyone even fairly acquainted with saxophone knows that each instrument has its own feel and its own set of problems. Frankly, we have all heard baritone saxophone played loudly and with a rather unattractive ‘honking’ timbre. The soprano can sound pinched, shrill and suffer from pitch problems. (Dahlke’s performance of the Suite No. 3 in C bears repeated hearing. It is that amazing.) Saxophone is one of the instruments – in any of its voices – that is truthfully not that difficult to ‘play.’ To play them well, with beauty and admirable tone quality and jaw-dropping control and fluidity of line in a very tricky, classical setting requires incredible skill and hours of dedication.

I found Andy Dahlke’s performance of these monumental works to prove that point completely. This is not a ‘novelty’ recording and it is not even ‘better than you might think.’  It is far more than that. A must hear!

—Daniel Coombs

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