MUCZYNSKI: (arr. Kynaston) Saxophone Concerto; HEIDEN: Fantasia Concertante. Diversion; Arrangements of music by GERSHWIN, BRUCH, PUCCINI, and MASSENET.

MUCZYNSKI (arr. Kynaston)  Saxophone Concerto.  HEIDEN  Fantasia Concertante.  Diversion  – Eugene Rousseau (sax); Frederick Fennell, cond; Winds of Indiana – DELOS DE 3188 (71:28)

GERSHWIN (arr. R. Hermann)  Porgy and Bess Medley.  BRUCH (arr. Kimura)  Kol Nidre.  PUCCINI (arr. R. Hermann)  Tosca Fantasy.  MASSENET (arr. Curnow)  Thais: Meditation

This is an attractive showcase for the artistry of Eugene Rousseau, one of today’s foremost saxophone virtuosos, based for many years at the University of Indiana.  This recent release should appeal to saxophonists, to general listeners who simply enjoy the saxophone as a “classical” concert instrument, and to more ambitious listeners in search of worthwhile new repertoire discoveries.  Entitled “Saxophone Vocalise,” the disc highlights the instrument’s particular aptness for cantabile playing through a group of arrangements of melodic favorites; these, however, surround three substantial, expertly crafted neoclassical works.  Rousseau is accompanied here by the Winds of Indiana, a cream-of-the-crop group culled from faculty and students at the University, conducted by the legendary wind ensemble pioneer Frederick Fennell.

Probably most notable from the standpoint of the serious listener is the first recording of Robert Muczynski’s 1981 Concerto for Saxophone and Orchestra, heard here in a most appropriate and idiomatic transcription for wind ensemble done by Trent Kynaston, the saxophonist for whom the work was written.  Muczynski, Chicago-born but a long-time resident of Arizona, is now in his late 60s.  His music is rarely sensational or breath-taking in any way, but is consistently interesting, tasteful, and satisfying, and always displays an authentic expressive impetus, which sets it above most American neoclassicism.  His catalog centers around chamber music and music for solo piano.  Indeed, one of the unfortunate casualties of the sudden end of the LP era during the mid-1980s was the disappearance of two Laurel discs devoted to Muczynski’s own fine performances of his complete piano output.  Although — for musico-political reasons–he has never developed much of a reputation as a composer of “significance,” a number of his works have become repertoire staples, most notably his marvelous Flute Sonata, a sine qua non among flutists.  Muczynski’s full-length concerto, while displaying a characteristic emotional reserve, is consistently effective, maintaining a dark moodiness somewhat suggestive of Bernard Herrmann. The work receives a handsome, finely polished reading here.

Also of substantive musical interest are two works by Bernard Heiden, a prolific composer, born in Germany in 1910, but associated with the University of Indiana for most of his career.  Another unfortunately low-profile figure, Heiden has turned out a considerable body of rather unremarkable but expertly wrought chamber music.  His reputation has further suffered for his never having fully shaken free of the dominating influence of his teacher Paul Hindemith.  That influence is clearly apparent in the two works offered here.  The 7-minute Diversion is rather conventional in impact, though its straightforward vigor is pleasantly bracing.  Its musical materials are simpler and more diatonic than other works of the composer with which I am familiar.  Considerably more complex is the Fantasia Concertante, composed in 1988–almost half a century after the Diversion.  Here the materials are much more dissonant and chromatic, while the syntax remains within the familiar parameters of neoclassicism.  Both Heiden works are performed brilliantly.

As mentioned, these three works are nestled among arrangements of more tuneful favorites, but the latter are less consistently successful, while providing opportunities for Rousseau to display his warm, liquid tone.  The Bruch and the Massenet are pretty enough and require no particular comment.  However, the brief medley of tunes from Porgy and Bess sounds rather uptight and “square”–attributable as much to Fennell’s rather rigid conducting as to Rousseau’s playing.  Least idiomatic of all, however, is the Tosca medley:  Saxophone plus winds cannot approach the peculiarly magical timbre achieved by Puccini in his blending of voice with orchestra.  Ralph Hermann’s arrangement sounds quite bizarre by comparison, and is further marred by some really tacky lapses of taste.  Rousseau seems uncomfortable with the lavishly indulgent phrasing customary for this music and rushes hastily through it.  But these are minor matters relative to the project as a whole.