This recording is composed of six contemporary works for a saxophone quartet. If this repertoire has been constantly enriched over the past half-century, it is because this combination of four instruments covers a wide range, with extremely rich harmonic and rhythmic textures.
Recorded in Paris, May 2000, Grand plateau du Conservatoire National Superieur de Musique & de Danse. Musica Numeris Studio
All Music Guide
This Alpha Productions release, Mysterious Morning, is the first full-length disc by the Quatuor Habanera, a French saxophone quartet founded in 1993 and dedicated to the exploration of the ever-expanding universe of music being created for this instrumental combination. The main event for many listeners will be the inclusion of a late Iannis Xenakis work, Xas (1987). Booklet note-writer Alain Poirer describes Xenakis' music as "harsh and severe," yet Xas' surprising moments of sweetness are what the listener takes note of; the sections aptly described by Poirer's words will come as no shock to ears attuned to the sound of free jazz groups. Gyorgy Ligeti's popular and oft recorded Bagatelles (6) are presented in a saxophone quartet adaptation made in 1997 by Guillaume Bourgogne with the approval of the composer and recorded here for the first time. The tone of the saxophone enhances the bright, folksy, and popular aspects of this early Ligeti piece. The best thing on the disc, though, is young Japanese composer Fuminori Tanada's Mysterious Morning II, which dives into the realm of saxophone ensemble sonority feet first, producing many startling effects that can only be made by these instruments. Mysterious Morning II also has the benefit of being a mysterious, atmospheric, and vaguely spiritual piece without being new agey.
Franco Donatoni's Rasch, originally written for the Rascher Saxophone Quartet, starts out sounding like a broken-down old squeeze box and dissolves into a flurry of Berg-like flittering. It does not make much of an impression, but Donatoni's mirror-image retrograde version of it with some added percussion, Rasch II, does. It is just that in reverse order for some reason the form of the piece is more convincing - go figure. Outside of referencing the Dies Irae several times, Sofiya Gubaidulina's In Erwartung is so sparse it seems hardly there, and it didn't do a thing for the listener.
To want Mysterious Morning one must take a fancy to saxophone groups and contemporary music, a rather specialized combination of tastes. For those who qualify, this is a solid effort by Quatuor Habanera and, despite some less than interesting music, it does make one want to hear more by this group.
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If the saxophone quartet repertoire has been constantly enriched over the past half-century, it is probably because this combination of four instruments belonging to the same family covers a wide range, from the highest to the lowest note obtainable, thus making it comparable to the string quartet. The ensemble also possesses a rich variety of timbres and playing techniques. Add to that the presence of some very fine saxophone ensembles, including the Habanera Quartet, who are always keen to inspire new works, and it is easy to understand why composers have taken such an interest in the genre. As nineteenth-century composers explored the possibilities of the piano, those of the second half of the twentieth century have investigated the qualities of the saxophone.
The first work presented here is a transcription of Gyorgy Ligeti's Bagatelles for wind quintet, carried out by Guillaume Bourgogne with the full approval of both the composer and his publisher, Schott International, Mainz. Transcription, involving a reinterpretation of the original material, undoubtedly represents a challenge: the original work can be given an entirely new dimension by adaptation to a different musical context. It is interesting to note that Ligeti himself had already used the same process on this work. His Bagatelles of 1953 are themselves derived from his composition entitled Musica ricercata (1951-53), a set of eleven piano pieces, of which he selected six (nos. 3, 5, 7, 8, 9 and 10) for arrangement for wind quintet.
The influence of Bartok (particularly in no. 5, i.e. Bagatelle no. 2) and Stravinsky (no. 6) are still to be felt in these pieces. Each of the piano pieces is based on series of notes, ranging from two to twelve. Thus, in the six Bagatelles, we find the following progression: four notes in no. 1; six notes in the melodic phrase played by the alto saxophone in no. 2; eight notes ostinato, shared between the tenor and the baritone in no. 3; nine notes in the rhythmic element performed by the whole quartet in no. 4; ten notes in the first part of no. 5, taken by the alto; eleven notes in the motif presented by Shortly after Hot for sopranino or tenor saxophone and six instruments (1989), Franco Donatoni composed Rasch for "saxophone quartet (1990), which was premiered by the Rascher Quartet, to whom the work is dedicated. Rasch reflects the name of the quartet, but it is also the German word for affrettato, 'quickly', 'in haste', a description that is borne out by the work's content. The discourse consists mainly of fleeting groups, interrupted by rests and recurring almost automatically, as is often the case in the music of Donatoni. For two-thirds of the piece we find a constant pianissimo, corresponding to an 'organised disorder', with the four instruments expressing themselves as a group, but in an unsynchronised fashion, and moving towards a homorhythmic style, culminating in fortissimo blocks, before the quartet ends in a combination of the two styles. Although it was composed five years later, Rasch II, a score commissioned by the Sax Foundation, follows on directly from the earlier work. The beginning is a retrograde version of the coda of Rasch, i.e. the original score is read from right to left, and it is treated as in a fugue, with the four instruments entering successively in imitation of each other on the opening line, a semitone apart. Above all, Donatoni develops the main idea of Rasch by adapting it to a new instrumental context with the addition of a percussionist (vibraphone, marimba and percussion instruments) and a pianist. Thus, the main features of the discourse in this piece, with its spatial but also temporal dimension, are contrast (between lines and blocks) and synchronisa-tion-desynchronisation (between the saxophone quartet and the other instruments).
Composed by Xenakis in 1987 for the Rascher Quartet, which gave the first performance of the work, Xas - an anagram of Sax and also a condensed form of the composer's name (XenAkiS) - is a different type of work in that the composer largely considers the quartet as a single instrument, capable of polyphony. Close in this respect to Xenakis's writing since the arborescences of Evryali for piano (1973), the score illustrates the author's fidelity to his option of handling sound masses, which are often very fast, with the exception of a few short solo spells which make use of complex harmony, including quarter-tones and multiphonic sound. This music is harsh and severe, and Xas creates unusual sounds within a form that is easily comprehensible: following saturation, it gradually moves towards an exhaustion of the material - another feature of Xenakis's compositions.
Fuminori Tanada, who has composed many works for saxophone since Chants des lumieres I (for alto saxophone and orchestra) of 1991, pursues the same objective in the cycle entitled Mysterious Morning, numbers II and III of which, written in 1996-97, are for saxophone quartet and soprano saxophone, respectively. Although the other pieces in the cycle (I and IV) are intended for the harp, all the pieces are closely related: Tanada makes use of bisbigliando ('whispering') - a special effect very characteristic of the harp, consisting of a constant reiteration of notes with variations of colour - which he also adapts to the saxophones. Indeed, each of the two pieces of Mysterious Morning II, which was commissioned by the Habanera Quartet, explores sound from within, with its micro intervals, vibrato of intensity or glissando, recourse to the voice at pitches slightly higher than the sound played simultaneously, or else trills and multiphonic sounds. The unusual relief produced by these waves of sound creates a different perception of time, which is suspended, despite the density of the individual lines: the resulting music is both fluid and unstable, constantly enriched by infinite changes of timbre, and within it we perceive, as it were, an object that is a more or less motionless, and which remains the same whilst constantly changing its appearance.
The forces used by Sofia Gubaidulina in In Enuartung ('In anticipation', 1994) are diversified, both in number - saxophone quartet and six percussion instruments (an exotic array) - and in the arrangement of the instrumentalists: the four saxophonists, standing at the back of the auditorium at the beginning of the score, gradually move forward until they join the percussionists on stage; at the same time, two of the percussionists move in the opposite direction, reaching the back of the auditorium at the end of the work. This approaching and retreating gives rise to some unusual effects, in a composition based on an extract from the Dies Irae, in which violence and profundity are alternated regularly. It is true that the spiritual dimension that appears in many of Gubaidulina's works - including De Profundis (1978), In Croce (1979) and Seven Last Words (1982) - is given a fresh opportunity here to sustain a constant reflection on death, until the final bars, when the music imperceptibly sinks into silence.
-Alain Poirier (translation: Mary Pardoe)