‘The Eight Sounds’ = Works of BEAMISH, STUCKY & CHEN YI -Rascher Sax Q./Stuttgart Ch. Orch./ Engelen – BIS

by | Feb 8, 2012 | Classical CD Reviews

‘The Eight Sounds’ = SALLY BEAMISH: Chamber Concerto for Saxophone Quartet and Strings; STEVEN STUCKY: Music for Saxophones and Strings; CHEN YI: Ba Yin (The Eight Sounds) – Rascher Saxophone Quartet/Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra/Robin Engelen – BIS Records CD-1821, (Distr. by Qualiton), 57:50 ****:
The Rascher Saxophone Quartet is named after founder and classical saxophone pioneer Sigurd Rascher. Going all the back to the 1930s, Rascher and his disciples have sought to take the fluid, varied and versatile timbral and technical possibilities of the saxophone more into classical territory, without ever losing sight of its idiomatic jazz roots. The present performers – Christine Rall, soprano sax; Elliot Riley, alto; Bruce Weinberger, tenor and Kenneth Coon, baritone sax – are all wonderful players with a tight ensemble sound and wonderful tone. There have actually been some really nice pieces written for sax quartet with or without orchestra these past few years and the present three – while new to me – make for exciting listening and commanding additions to this repertory.
Sally Beamish is a Londoner and studied with Lennox Berkeley. I have had occasion to hear some of her orchestral scores and was not as aware as I would like to be with her film score and chamber output. Her style is largely neo-Romantic with nods to Bax and even Hoddinutt. The Chamber Concerto for saxophone quartet and strings is a wonderful three movement work with much to admire. The middle adagio is the longest and built on a bass line from one of the Bach Brandenburg concerti. In fact, Beamish states that this whole piece is based, structurally, on elements within the Bach. It does sound very contrapuntal throughout. I found this whole work quite attractive but especially the long pensive second movement with its luxurious long line melodies. The Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra under Robin Engelen provides sensitive and effective accompaniment to the quartet throughout.
Steven Stucky is a well known American composer who is an endowed composition professor at Cornell University and who has built a long time association with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Most of Stucky’s music is quite picturesque and dramatic, built on timbres and chord patterns that evoke moods. The Music for Saxophones and Strings is an excellent of this approach. Written for the Rascher Quartet and the Camerata Bern, the piece exists in two consecutive halves based on two very different moods. The opening half is – in Stucky’s words – dense, nocturnal, troubled. The sounds are highly chromatic and the four saxophones sound as unidentified sounds in the night; eerily evocative and even nightmarish at times. An extended cadenza by the lower saxophones leads directly into the music’s much livelier second half. There is an almost frantic feel to the closure of the piece with the saxes running around playing strongly accented passages. This is truly a virtuoso work with plenty for the players as well as the audience to pay attention to.
This disc takes its name from Chen Yi’s Ba Yin (The Eight Sounds). Chen is a fascinating and talented composer who takes much of her inspiration from her native China, clearly so in this amazing three movement work for saxophone quartet and strings. The title refers specifically to the eight timbres available and used in the formal music of ancient China – metal, stone, silk, bamboo, gourd, clay, leather and wood. The first movement, “Praying for Rain”, is patterned after an ancient ritual ceremony involving wind instruments and, literally, a prayer for healthy crops. The second, “Song of the Chu” is named for a separate country that existed in central China during the Zhou dynasty. The saxophones imitate the sounds of a clay instrument called the xun and the harmonies used by this culture that existed from approximately the 11th to the 3rd centuries B.C.  The closing movement, “Shifan Gong-and-drum” is named after a type of ensemble found in southeast China. Shifan means “ten times” and defines the manner in which the ensemble performs. Chen uses clever orchestration in the string sections to imitate the sounds of a percussion ensemble against the melodies in the saxophones. This is a very complex but rewarding work and I greatly admired its sound which perfectly emulates traditional Chinese music in a very modern context. I have always loved her music and am quite glad to have discovered this piece!
This is a very good collection that I imagine would appeal primarily to saxophone players but ought to be heard and admired by anyone seeking some very creative and captivating new music for this vibrant but unusual combination. The Rascher Quartet is top notch and all forces make for a sonically rich recording with great performances.
—Daniel Coombs

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