Ebonit Saxophone Quartet – The Last Words of Christ – REGER/HAYDN/WEBERN/SIBELIUS/SHOSTAKOVICH – Challenge Classics multichannel SACD CC72701, 53:13 (2/3/16) ****:
(Simone Muller, soprano saxophone/ Dineke Nauta, alto saxophone/ Johannes Pfeuffer, tenor saophone/ Paulina Marta Kulesza, baritone saxophone/ Claron McFadden, voice)
A nearly successful attempt at solemnity.
In 1786 a work by Joseph Haydn premiered in Cadiz, Spain. The occasion was Good Friday Service in a “subterranean” cathedral. According to reports made to Haydn, the church was darkened and a priest flung himself before the altar and uttered the first word of the seven last sentences spoken by Jesus before his death. A homily on each word followed, separated by the performance of each of the seven movements. Together, music and text comprised the Easter celebration of the Passion. As such, it appears to belong to the tradition of religious music which reached its apogee in Handel, Pergolesi and Bach. However, I have always had a problem with this notion; The Seven Last Words of Christ considered in purely musical terms does not seem to express any noticeable degree of solemnity, no transcendent yearning or tragedy. Certainly, the old Haydn jollity and wit are set aside, but instead we hear a very pastoral and subdued songfulness, a sotto voce conversation among the same old friends: the four voices of the string quartet. Perhaps the choice of medium accounts for the incongruity of the piece, but surely something in Haydn’s character is also at work here. He was not fit for magniloquence in a minor key. His genius was for the bright world of musical discourse. Let’s face it, four friends do not confront together ultimate mysteries, ponder death and dying, or peer into the afterlife. It is all too much for gentle, witty, worldy-minded Haydn. His musical protagonists inquire, jest, plead and squabble, like characters in the contemporary 18th-century novel.
Typically one hears this music without the text inserted. But in the recording under review here, the text is central to the construction of the entire recital, which consists of pieces by four other composers besides Haydn. Suddenly, we have a super-sized Seven Last Words, that begins with Max Reger’s marvelous choral Nachtlied and then intersperses movements from Haydn’s work with Anton Webern’s Langsamer Satz, Jean Sibelius’ String Quartet, and two movements from Dmitri Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 7. Claron McFadden (female) recites the text, adding another related text, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do,” which was the basis for the Reger piece.
All of this sounds a bit strange, but trust me, it all works because instead of hearing this music on the traditional string quartet, we have a saxophone quartet, and in hi-res surround.
I support – and I hope my readers will agree – that it is all to the good for saxophone quartets to pillage the chamber music literature to build up a working repertoire. I can attest that a well-oiled sax quartet is a thing of splendor and prone to pull a surprise or two. In the end, the proof is in the pudding. Here we are treated to the Ebonit Saxophone Quartet on what appears to be a debut recording for Challenge Classics. They are impressive exponents of this music. Their ensemble work is beyond reproach, while for tonal color and subtilty of dynamics they can match up to any set of strings. In the end, their interpretations of these disparate pieces are completely persuasive.
Setting aside for the moment whether or not it was good to drag this text along behind them, I will point out some of the highlights of this recording. First the concluding piece by Shostakovich assumes an entirely new character as played by soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxophone. It seems speak the language of this most private of musical languages with an eerie familiarity. The separation of the voices is so potent as to make the music all the more immediate and polyphonic. One might immediately demand that this group embark on a Shostakovich recording project. The Webern piece too, seems to benefit from the reedy sound. A measure of the sombreness of his early Romantic work is lifted by what sounds like an intimation of the future.
The Reger piece is likewise a complete success. This short excerpt Nachtlied Op.138/3 comes the closest to the kind of solemnity that one associates with Sacred Music. Finally the long adagio from Sibelius’ Voces intimae which bizarrely follows the text, “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” text, works reasonably well after one gives up trying to make the connection to the text.
The Haydn movements are all separated. Written specifically as an expression of grief and acknowledgement of the death of Christ, these three piece have the paradoxical function of musical uplift. Nothing transcendent here; just the affirmation of human hopes. On the last of these three, The voice intones the “It is Finished”, but then Haydn and his four saxes step in and tell us that things are, in fact, not as bad as they seem. We are far from Golgatha here.
In short this is a very satisfying recital by an exciting group. Apparently, they hope to put a larger construction on this, their debut recording. Their interpretive scheme may or may not or may seem compelling. What cannot be argued is that they have succeeded brilliantly in putting together a highly unusual program which demonstrates the long reach and aesthetic richness of Adolphe Sax’s brilliant invention.