MUCZYNSKI, CRESTON, HEIDEN, LEVIN, HARTLEY: Saxophone Sonatas. TAKÁCS Two Fantastics. PACCIONE Seeing Those Hours. ROREM Picnic on the Marne. HOVHANESS Suite for Alto Saxophone and Guitar. QUATE Light of Sothis. WIEDOEFT Valse Vanité

THE INTERACTIVE SAXOPHONE • John Vana (sax); Jenny Perron (pn) • CAPSTONE CPS-8763 (61:14)
MUCZYNSKI: Sonata. HEIDEN Sonata. H. LEVIN Sonata. TAKÁCS Two Fantastics. PACCIONE Seeing Those Hours

AMERICAN SAXOPHONE MUSIC • Alex Mitchell (sax); Jeremy Limb (pn); Neil Hornsby (gtr)• NAXOS 8.559241 (68:59)
MUCZYNSKI: Sonata. CRESTON: Sonata. ROREM: Picnic on the Marne. HOVHANESS: Suite for Alto Saxophone and Guitar. HARTLEY: Sonata for Baritone Saxophone and Piano. QUATE: Light of Sothis. WIEDOEFT Valse Vanité

Here are two recent releases that highlight music mostly for alto saxophone and piano (the Naxos disc includes two exceptions). One piece common to both discs is Robert Muczynski’s 1970 Sonata. Like several other of Muczynski’s chamber works featuring woodwinds, his Saxophone Sonata has become a staple of the repertoire, and justifiably so: It is a seven-minute masterpiece, its two movements vaguely suggesting the feeling of a “French Overture.” The opening Andante maestoso is built around a solemn, moody, and very beautiful melody; the ensuing Allegro energico pursues the vigorous, exciting, rhythmically syncopated course that characterizes most of this much-played but little-discussed composer’s output. There is not a superfluous note to be found in this work. Its presence on both discs offers a natural opportunity to compare the two musicians. British saxophonist Alex Mitchell is a fine player, with a solid technique and fairly good tonal control, but he is seriously outclassed by John Vana. Muczynski is quoted on the liner as having stated that Vana’s is “easily one of the BEST recordings of my sonata I’ve yet heard.” I will go further and assert that it is easily THE best recording of the sonata that I’ve yet heard, with subtleties of phrasing and dynamics totally absent from the other performance, revealing it to be the great work it is.

John Vana and his wife Jenny Perron are on the faculty of Western Illinois University. He has introduced a number of works by some of today’s distinguished composers; and, like most classical saxophonists, he is active as a jazz performer as well. The title The Interactive Saxophone is a little peculiar. It supposedly refers to “a new compositional aesthetic” in which composers “change the ensemble relationship between the saxophone and piano, making the interplay between the two instruments more and more interactive.” Well, I may be missing something, but this doesn’t sound like “a new compositional aesthetic” to me—this is what chamber music is supposed to be all about! It’s as if a recital disc were entitled “The In-Tune Violin,” highlighting a “new aesthetic” called “playing in tune.” But aside from this minor and barely relevant cavil, the release is one of the finest saxophone recital discs I have encountered. Vana aims for a level of artistry clearly a cut above the norm among classical saxophonists, with an expert technique and, most notably, a rich palette of tone colors. And, consistent with the implications of the title, Vana and his wife deliver carefully phrased, smoothly coordinated performances. 

In addition to the Muczynski, their CD also features the venerable Sonata by Bernhard Heiden (1910-2000). Like the Creston Sonata, which it predates by two years, Heiden’s 1937 work is one of the classics of what might be described as the first American generation of serious saxophone music. The German-American composer is well known among instrumentalists as a Hindemith-protegé who seemed content to produce a repertoire of well-crafted works that generally remained within his mentor’s stylistic frame of reference. However, I’m afraid that I find Vana and Perron’s performance of it to be a bit precious, as if reading too much into the work. Some may disagree, but for me much of the strength of Heiden’s Sonata lies in its grim, gray, but solid and rather brusque neo-classicism. Vana tries to imbue it with additional felicities—shifting tone colors, subtleties of articulation and phrasing—that may enhance some pieces, but in this work produce a sort of prissy glibness. In other words, they seem to alter its basic nature, which reflects a certain rough-hewn vigor; their performance calls to mind the image of a tomboy wearing make-up and high heels. Similarly, Randall E. Faust’s program notes make extravagant claims for the sonata (“a work that would be a masterpiece in any genre”) that in a sense do it an injustice by exaggerating its stature.

The three other compositions on this disc are less familiar works by less familiar composers. Paul Paccione is in his mid 50s, also on the faculty at Western Illinois University. His Seeing Those Hours was composed in 2004, specifically for the Vana-Perron duo. It is a quiet, soothingly contemplative piece that unfolds in long, gently tranquil phrases. From a traditional point of view it is rather static, with an approach to the development of melody and harmony that calls Hovhaness to mind (although his actual materials do not resemble those of the Armenian-American’s). 

A few years younger than Paccione, Harold Levin has been active in the Midwest as a violist and conductor, as well as composer. His three-movement Saxophone Sonata was composed in 1998. Revealing a postmodern style with some influence of minimalism, the sonata is most striking in the excitingly unpredictable rhythmic phraseology of its outer movements. The central slow movement, which opens and closes with unaccompanied passages, is contemplative and tonally free, building to a level of considerable intensity.

Jenöe Takács was a Hungarian-American composer who appears to have lived past the age of 100, the accompanying notes indicating that he expired in 2005. His Two Fantastics are roughly contemporaneous with the Muczynski Sonata, dating from 1969, and share with that work an overall diptych design in slow-fast sequence. Its first section is mysterious and dramatic, with a harmonic language considerably more dissonant than Muczynski’s. The second section, though similarly lively and syncopated, is much more explicit in embracing a jazz-based musical language, including overt boogie-woogie elements. This movement is quite engaging, and concludes the program with a smile. 

As noted earlier, English saxophonist Alex Mitchell’s recital of American music displays a lesser degree of artistic refinement. However, it is not without interest, especially for other saxophonists, as well as for those who enjoy the more obscure areas of the repertoire. Like the Vana program, Mitchell’s also features repertoire classics as well as less familiar pieces. In addition to the Muczynski, the other classic is the 1939 Sonata by Paul Creston—by far his most widely performed work—an example of this composer’s lively and lyrical, French-flavored neo-classicism. What struck me immediately about this performance is that these performers must be familiar with the half-century-old Columbia Masterworks recording that featured the late saxophone virtuoso Vincent Abato, with the composer at the piano. (That recording, which also offered the definitive, to-this-date-unequalled performance of Vincent Persichetti’s masterpiece, the Concerto for Piano, Four Hands, is an urgent—and long overdue—candidate for CD reissue.) The performance by Mitchell and his pianist Jeremy Limb is amazingly similar to that venerable rendition, with regard to tempo and phrasing, although they do succumb to a few ragged lapses here and there.

Ned Rorem’s Picnic on the Marne is subtitled, “Seven Waltzes.” Composed in 1983, this suite of some 15 minutes duration is conceived as a Francophile travelogue, which is no surprise to anyone familiar with this composer’s aesthetic predilections. I gather that it is rapidly being absorbed into the mainstream saxophone repertoire, which is also no surprise, given the limited attention the instrument has garnered among major composers. The piece fulfills its artistic goals more than adequately, and is represented fairly well in this performance, although there are some unfortunate moments of rather coarse tone quality. 

The only piece under discussion here that does not feature the alto saxophone is the Sonata for Baritone Saxophone and Piano by Walter S. Hartley, long associated with the State University in Fredonia, NY, and now in his early 80s. He is a prolific composer, especially of music for winds, although those pieces I have heard have struck me as inhabiting a rather uninteresting vein of neo-classicism. The baritone saxophone is generally a rather unwieldy instrument, although when played well it offers a deliciously rich foundation to the tone quality of a saxophone quartet. However, its tone is hard to control, and it is difficult to articulate with any delicacy. Hence few composers have approached it as a solo medium for substantive musical expression, although I have the impression that this situation is changing. Hartley’s 1976 Sonata is more interesting as a challenge to the artistry of the player than for its intrinsic musical qualities, as its exceedingly dour, dry, humorless neo-classicism offers little appeal. Mitchell attempts to meet its instrumental and musical challenges, but falls victim to the inevitable pitfalls.

I don’t believe that there is an instrumental medium at which Alan Hovhaness ever refused to try his hand. Here the medium is alto saxophone and guitar, and we are offered a sonata composed in 1976. If you are familiar with this composer’s music, you know pretty much what to expect from its three brief movements: the first is modal, melodious, and quite attractive; the second is unaccompanied, and recalls similar saxophone solos in the composer’s Armenian-oriented pieces, such as the Saint Vartan Symphony; the third movement points more in the direction of Japan. 

The composer with whom I am least familiar is Amy Quate. She is a Texas-based composer in her 50s who seems to be quite active in a variety of commercial endeavors involving communications media, in addition to music. Her short, three-movement piece, Light of Sothiswas composed in 1982, and was named for an Egyptian goddess. The piece is tranquil, hauntingly modal, and evocative in a somewhat “New Age” sort of way. Actually, it left an impression notably similar to that made by the Paccione piece on the Vana-Perron disc.

The Mitchell-Limb program concludes with a piece by Rudy Wiedoeft. Wiedoeft was a saxophone virtuoso who became a sensation during the 1920s within a pop-oriented light-classical world that no longer exists (except perhaps as represented by Andrea Bocelli). He is remembered today chiefly for novelty vehicles for the instrument that are trotted out as encores. His Valse Vanité is just such a period piece, and is played here with the requisite panache.