Saxophone Pictures = MUSSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition; DRESSEL: Partita; CANFIELD: Trio after Brahms in G minor – Kenneth Tse, sax/ Rachel Patrick, violin/ Lin-Yu Wang & Alan Huckleberry, pianos – Crystal Records

Saxophone Pictures =  MUSSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition; DRESSEL: Partita; CANFIELD: Trio after Brahms in G minor – Kenneth Tse, saxophones/ Rachel Patrick, violin/ Lin-Yu Wang & Alan Huckleberry, pianos – Crystal Records CD780, 74:26 (4/9/13) ****:

The saxophone was invented in 1840, within a year of the birth of Modest Mussorgsky. The Belgian Adolphe Saxe saw its first use in French military bands, and it has always been a hybrid instrument – with a tube of brass, the conical shape of the oboe family, and the single reed of the clarinet family. Many serious composers have written for it, but it remains most closely associated with jazz and popular music. The three composers on this disc represent the full lifespan and broad range of sonorities, of the saxophone family in classical music.

David Deboor Canfield (b. 1950) is the most contemporary of the three. His Trio after Brahms in G minor is a most enjoyable chamber work for alto saxophone, violin (Rachel Patrick) and piano (Lin-Yu Wang). I do hear hints of Brahms throughout. Canfield is a most interesting person. Besides writing very memorable music, he was a successful entrepreneur, building the world’s largest record distribution business. I’ve run a business, so I admire enormously anyone (e.g. Ives, Borodin) who holds a job and also writes beautiful music.  Now out of the business, Canfield  writes mostly for small ensembles, and often in an evocative style (specifically Gliere, Tchaikovsky, Joplin, and here, Brahms). I hope to hear more of Canfield’s music.

Erwin Dressel (1909 – 1972) is the second composer represented, and the least known. He spent almost his whole life in Berlin, as composer of operas, and for orchestra (four symphonies) as well as pianist and arranger of music for the radio, and, in his later years, vocal coach at the Deutsche Staatsoper. The work here, Partita, is a five movement work for alto saxophone and piano (Lin-Yu Wang). Dressel avoided all the modernistic influences floating around  Europe in the first half of the 20th century, and held to the German Romantic tradition in his composing. That’s reflected here not only in the music but in the names of the sections – Prelude-Allemande, Canzone, Courante, Pavane, and Gigue – evoking the forms of Purcell, Couperin, Bach and Handel.  This music is the least engaging of the three on the album.

Modest Mussorgsky (1839 – 1881) was the second youngest of “The Russian Five” (to Rimsky-Korsakov by five years) but lived the shortest life. He was both a self-taught composer, and a highly intellectual one. Like most of “The Five”, he came from a comfortable background, and strove in his early song-writing to capture and celebrate the beauty of the spoken Russian language. As with many Russians, death affected him personally. There is evidence that his mother’s death in 1865 caused him to start drinking excessively, and this eventually killed him. Another death, that of his artist friend Victor Hartmann in 1873 caused him to write Pictures at an Exhibition after viewing a memorial showing of Hartmann’s watercolors, stage designs and architectural drawings. The piece was originally written for piano, then orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov in 1886.  The composer of the first piece on this disc, David Canfield, did the transcription of the work for four saxophone voices (played separately) and piano. The result is a very effective revisiting of the work. It’s evident that Canfield loves the piece, and knows and loves the sounds of the saxophone family.

Kenneth Tse is a phenomenal saxophone player. Originally self-taught in his native Hong Kong, he has become a world-class recitalist, chamber player and orchestral soloist, as well as teacher and administrator. This is his sixth recording for Crystal Records, adding to an equal number for other labels. Reviews of his concerts and recordings speak of his “supremely elegant tone” and “sheer virtuosity.” He produces some of the sweetest sounds I’ve ever heard from a saxophone. Not all the sax sounds here are beautiful, especially in the Pictures, but they’re not meant to be. Tse is Associate Professor of Saxophone at the University of Iowa, and both he and his students have won performance prizes around the world. He gives back to the music world as President-Elect of the North American Saxophone Alliance, and Vice-President of the International Saxophone Committee.

The other performers on this album – Huckleberry, Patrick and Wang – are all very strong, and support the lead instrument well. David Canfield, besides writing the first piece and transcribing the second, also produced the album. Crystal Records is known as the “wind aficionado’s best friend”. This album will enhance that reputation.

—Paul Kennedy

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