“Journey – Five Centuries of Song for the Saxophone” = Works by SCARLATTI, CARISSIMI, VIVALDI, MAHLER, MESSIAEN, and others – Eric Lau, sax/Kristin Ditlow, p. – Blue Griffin

Very unusual program but very nice playing.

“Journey – Five Centuries of Song for the Saxophone” = Works by SCARLATTI, CARISSIMI, VIVALDI, MAHLER, MESSIAEN, and others – Eric Lau, sax/ Kristin Ditlow, p. – Blue Griffin BGR399, 66:54, (Distr. by Albany) (5/16/16) ***:

Eric Lau is a professor of saxophone at the University of New Mexico, a frequent soloist with virtually every New Mexico orchestra as well as the Santa Fe Opera and is the baritone sax player in the esteemed Iridium Quartet. He is a very fine player with a clear and vibrant tone and formidable technique. Eric is truly “the man” among saxophone players in New Mexico and among the best players in the country as I have had the pleasure of hearing his work with the Iridium Quartet.

So it is not surprising that – for saxophone playing itself – this is a rewarding album. The show here really is Eric’s very nice tone quality. The payoff is that this album makes for very ‘soft-spoken’, almost ambient, listening. Lau’s technique is not on display here; nor for his pianist, the very fine Kristin Ditlow. I admit, though, I have issues with the program.

As the album title somewhat accurately says, this collection is culled from five centuries of art songs (and/or opera arias) transcribed for saxophone. These are transcriptions, up to and including the title track, Journey by contemporary composer Lori Laitman; not songs for saxophone. I don’t mind transcriptions too much; although I admit it is not at all my favorite genre with the hundreds of small, beautiful works out there written for any instrument that I know Eric Lau knows.

So, assuming or realizing that he wanted to structure an attractive but atypical program, he has succeeded. I feel definitely that the large set of opening works from Baroque opera, such as selections by Alessandro Scarlatti, Antonio Cesti, Giacomo Carissimi, et al, works the best. The combination of these very pretty melodies and piano; in which the piano gets to play some idiomatic accompanying lines is very attractive.

On the other hand, I admit I had a real issue with the selections by Gustav Mahler. Mahler’s melodies were not really what he was known for and they are very long lined, slow moving and phrased over many bars and not easily removed from their texts. This is the thing, for me. Whether it is “I am lost to the world” from the Rückert Lieder or the powerful “At midnight” from the same cycle, these songs do not work too well in my mind without the source of their true power: the words, conveyed by a singer with the emotion in her or his voice. That, plus Mahler’s dark, exotic and frequently brooding orchestrations make his works memorable; it is not they are typically ‘hummable.’

A Vocalise-Etude by Messiaen works somewhat better and I admit that I found Lori Laitman’s Journey pleasant but not memorable. So, we can listen to this album solely for the beauty of Eric Lau’s tone and not get too involved in the melodies. Melody, for its sake, does successfully convey in the Baroque selections much more than in the rest of this program.

—Daniel Coombs

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