Saxophone Masterpieces. KABELÁC: Suite. CRESTON Sonata. MUCZYNSKI: Sonata. HEIDEN: Sonata; Fantasia Concertante.

SAXOPHONE MASTERPIECES – Eugene Rousseau (alto sax); Jaromír Klepác (pn) – RIAX  RICA-10001 (68:28)

KABELÁC Suite. CRESTON Sonata. MUCZYNSKI Sonata. HEIDEN Sonata; Fantasia Concertante.

The title of this rather obscure disc may appear to be hyperbolic, but as far as I am concerned, it is pretty accurate. Furthermore, these masterpieces of the repertoire are lovingly brought to life by one of the world’s leading concert saxophonists. In recent years Eugene Rousseau, who has taught at the University of Indiana for more than three decades, has been documenting his performances of the major saxophone works on recordings. Many of these have proven to be convincing showcases not only for the music, but also for Rousseau’s all-encompassing technical mastery and beautifully refined tone quality, abetting a tasteful, if prudently cautious, sense of musical interpretation. The performances on this disc were recorded in Prague in 1992, and also feature the Czech pianist Jaromir Klepác, who serves as Rousseau’s accompanist at the summer program of the Salzberg Mozarteum, where he teaches during the summer. One makes the assumption that it was Klepác who introduced Rousseau to the Kabelác Suite, which, though a rarity whose appearance on CD is most welcome, is rather incongruous stylistically with the examples of mainstream American neoclassicism that comprise the rest of the program.

I have written quite extensively about other recordings featuring the extraordinary music of Miloslav Kabelác (1908-1979), and refer the interested reader to reviews that appeared in Fanfare 17:2, 17:3, 18:2, 20:1, and 22:1. The Suite for Saxophone and Piano is a substantial 20-minute work in six movements, composed in 1959 (between the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies). Rather than the group of Baroque-derived dance movements usually connoted by the word “suite” as used by neoclassicists, Kabelác’s work is a collection of largely rather ominous, portentous character pieces along the lines of the Inventions and Ricercares for percussion, the Preludes for organ and for piano, and other works of the composer. Although the saxophone does seem an odd candidate for the composer’s strangely impersonal — almost mechanical — cosmic reflections, the quality of the instrument conjures a sort of “human” persona through which these largely slow, introspective, and — at times — sublimely eloquent pieces are articulated.

The aesthetic opposite of the Kabelác Suite is the Saxophone Sonata of Paul Creston. A lively and warmly lyrical piece in the composer’s patented “Les Six on Times Square” manner, this three-movement work is ideally suited to the instrument. One of the first composers to write serious saxophone works, Creston also produced a suite, a concerto (with orchestra or band), a rhapsody (with organ), and a quartet. But the 1939 sonata is unquestionably the finest of them all. Indeed, it is one of Creston’s most tasteful and most superbly crafted chamber works — and probably his most popular one as well.

There have been at least a dozen recordings of the Creston Sonata, and I believe that I have heard most of them. None has rivaled the early 1950s Columbia monaural LP that featured the creamy-toned virtuosity of Vincent Abato and the amazing, feisty precision of Creston himself at the piano. But Rousseau and Klepác, while just as meticulously accurate and artfully coordinated, provide a richer, more fully realized musical experience by shaping melodic phrases and highlighting delightful rhythmic interplays in the more considered, thoughtful way that only a “second-generation performance” can. The modern recording quality is an additional enhancement.

A recurring presence in Fanfare for the past several issues is the Arizona-based Robert Muczynski, represented here by a powerfully expressive, highly concentrated seven-minute sonata in just two movements. Composed in 1970, Muczynski’s sonata occupies approximately the same locus on the American music spectrum as the Creston — neoclassical in form and style, warmly expressive in content, and articulated through a harmonic language calibrated to a relatively mild level of dissonance, without producing a bland or timid effect. Yet though their sonatas may exhibit the same generic style, the distinctive musical personalities of the two composers give rise to works that share little resemblance to each other. Muczynski’s opens with a dark, soulful melody of arresting beauty, developed at some length, and then followed by a grim and driving scherzo.

The two works for which the word “masterpiece” is a bit of a stretch are those by the German-born, Indiana-based Bernhard Heiden. Now almost 90, Heiden is well known for a large catalog of solidly crafted works, serious in tone and intent, and displaying a sincere and authentic musicality, aesthetically consistent with the principles of his teacher Paul Hindemith. However, the unfortunate limitation of Heiden’s otherwise estimable output is the composer’s inability to project a musical identity of his own, apart from the dominating presence of the elder master. Heiden’s Saxophone Sonata, preceding Creston’s by two years, is actually one of the first formally classical works written for the instrument (although Creston’s Suite dates from 1935). It could easily be mistaken for a work by Hindemith. Although I am sure that Rousseau’s interpretation has been authenticated by the composer, the tempos of the first two movements struck me as uncomfortably fast, with some uncoordinated moments between the two players as well.

Heiden’s Fantasia Concertante was written almost half a century later than the sonata and, in truth, Hindemith’s fingerprints are rather less apparent. This is a finely crafted free-form abstract work, just under 15 minutes in duration, and quite imaginative in its sober, no-nonsense manner. Rousseau has recorded the Fantasia in a version with band accompaniment on a disc (Delos DE-3188; see Fanfare 21:3, pp. 151-52) that also features Muczynski’s Saxophone Concerto. That one has the obvious advantage of greater tonal variety, but the piano reduction is an acceptable alternative.

All in all, this is quite a valuable release, and one that will please more than just saxophone enthusiasts, although it might easily be overlooked. Not only are Rousseau’s performances superb, as stated earlier, but pianist Klepác does quite an extraordinary job of capturing the spirit of a style of music that is often completely mangled by non-American performers. However, there are a few production blemishes that I would be remiss in failing to mention: First, no movement titles are given anywhere on the package — you’d be surprised how much they are missed! Second, the quantity and extent of typographical errors is quite excessive, including repeated confusion between the names Kabelác and Klepác. (The disc is available from RIAX, PO Box 8032, Bloomington, IN 47407, or