The Saxophone in Classical Music

Memorable, Well-Recorded Performances of Important Works

The Saxophone in Classical Music

Frenchman Jacques François Antoine Ibert (1890–1962) studied at the same school where the first professor of saxophone taught (yes, that would be Adolphe Sax), the Paris Conservatoire. His Concertino da camera for solo saxophone and 11 instruments (sometimes performed with a slightly boosted string section), written 1935–36, remains to this day one of the composer’s most frequently performed works. Ibert’s eclectic styles are on vivid display in this virtuosic work, including good humor and frivolity, as well as a beautifully lush slow section (the first part of what is effectively the third and final movement). Numerous recordings of the Concertino are available, one of which is included on saxophonist Nobuya Sugawa’s self-titled 2008 Chandos release with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra (Yutaka Sada, conductor). The effortless delivery of this light, virtuosic work is exceptional.

Alexander Glazunov (1865–1936), the Russian composer-teacher-conductor-conservatory director, wrote two significant works for the saxophone: a monumental saxophone quartet for soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone saxophones, and the Concerto for Alto Saxophone and String Orchestra (in E-flat Major, 1934). Cast in one large movement, the concerto is divided into distinct sections (versus individual movements). This format suggests a rhapsody of sorts. As the title specifies, the orchestra solely consists of strings (no winds, no percussion). Included on The Art of Saxophone and released in hybrid multi-channel SACD by Arts in 2009, this recording features Mario Marzi as soloist, with the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milan GiuseppeVerdi (Hansjorg Schellenberger, conductor). The recorded performance seamlessly manages the multitude of tempo changes and abundant use of rubato.

One of many composers who eventually immigrated to the United States due to hostility towards Jews, the German-born Ingolf Dahl (whose birth name was Walter Ingolf Marcus) contributed what remains an undeniably breathtaking saxophone concerto. A frequent revisionist of his own music, Dahl revised this three-movement work in 1959. Saxophonist Jorgen Pettersson, with David Porcelign conducting, recorded a moving interpretation of the concerto on the 1992 Caprice release (Digital Download) titled Stockholm Symphonic Wind Orchestra. How very interesting that a composer who has been described as a blend of Stravinsky and Hindemith, who served on the faculty of the University of Southern California, who was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and, among others, the ASCAP Stravinsky Award…how very interesting—wonderful, really—that Dahl also served as arranger and musical conductor for Victor Borge.

Born Giuseppe Guttoveggio in New York City to Italian immigrants, the Italian American composer who became known as Paul Creston (1906–1985) wrote several works for saxophone. These include, among others, a concerto, a rhapsody, a saxophone quartet, and the highly admired Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano, Op. 19 (1939). Just as Creston’s obsession with rhythm is demonstrated in his book Principles of Rhythm, his saxophone sonata serves as a brilliant vehicle for overt rhythmic diversity. Examples of this include frequent contrasting implied meters in the saxophone, piano right hand, and piano left hand…simultaneously. The second movement is noteworthy not just because of the simple beauty of the melodies, but because the composer wrote movement two in 5/4 meter. Creston did so quite skillfully, however, as this relatively unusual slow movement meter never detracts from his “with tranquility” marking. Included in a 1994 Globe release titled Saxophone Sonatas, this highly appealing work is most convincingly recorded by saxophonist Arno Bornkamp and pianist Ivo Janssen.

A more recent but extraordinarily passionate work is the Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano written in 1984 by William Albright. A work of nearly 19 minutes in length, the range of emotions and diversity of musical styles is staggering. This writer is proud to be one of three saxophonists for whom the work was written, and in that regard modestly notes its inclusion on the 2009 ACA Digital Recordings CD and Digital Download release titled Passions Large & Small, with the writer as saxophonist and Walter Cosand as pianist. While not the only work Albright composed for the saxophone, this sonata is indeed a masterpiece.

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