Thursday, 23 August 2018

CD Reviews - August 2018

I’ve seen Huw Wiggin (saxophone) perform solo and with the Ferio Saxophone Quartet in the Brighton Festival, and have always found him to be a highly engaging and entertaining performer, constantly expanding perceptions of what the saxophone can do.  The sax is often pigeonholed in jazz territory, but with his debut solo album, Wiggin aims to show that the instrument has much wider expressive possibilities, and he focuses on classical repertoire, much of which was composed before the saxophone was even invented in the mid 19thcentury. Consequently, most of the works are performed in arrangement, some by pianist John Lenehan, who accompanies Wiggin here.  One can only assume that some of the other arrangements are by Wiggin, but they are uncredited, so may be from existing arrangements for other instruments. However, Wiggin makes a strong case for the diverse range of works on offer here, presented broadly speaking in chronological order, from Alessandro Marcello’s (1673-1747) Oboe Concerto right through to Japanese composer Takashi Yoshimatsu’s (b.1953) ‘Sing, Bird’ from 1991. Marcello’s Concerto, possibly known better in Bach’s keyboard arrangement, works surprisingly well here, and Wiggin is able to show off with some intricate ornamentation – not particularly authentic, perhaps, but effective nonetheless.  Two arrangements of Schubert songs, ‘Du bist die Ruh’ and ‘Die Forelle’, follow.  The former works well, with its straightforward, touching melody given a simple, unaffected touch by Wiggin.  The latter I was less convinced by, the slightly four-square nature of the well-known tune sitting less comfortably with the instrument.  Lenehan’s arrangement of the Air from Grieg’s (1843-1907) Holberg Suite works very well, however, and Wiggin spins the expressive line beautifully here.  Camille Saint-Saëns’ The Swan from Carnival of the Animals never fails to delight, and the saxophone replaces the cello well, adding extra warmth to the beautiful, familiar melody.  For two arrangements of short piano works by Debussy (1862-1918), an Arabesque and the popular ‘The Girl with the Flaxen Hair’, Wiggin is joined by Oliver Wass on the harp. The cascading harp arpeggios combine with the simple melody given to the sax in the Arabesque, and The Girl with the Flaxen Hair is given a similar treatment, with Wiggin producing a long, liquid line over the harp’s subtle accompaniment.  The 7 Canciones populares españolas (7 popular Spanish songs) by Manuel de Falla (1876-1946) are beautifully atmospheric, and combine lively dance rhythms with eastern infused lyrical melodies, such as in the dark-toned Nana.  The piano writing here is not without challenges too, particularly in the final driving Polo, and Lenehan provides incisive support for Wiggin’s passionate, lyrical lines. They move to France for Paule Maurice’s (1910-1967) Tableaux de Provence.  This and Yoshimatsu’s piece are the only pieces here actually composed for the saxophone, although the Tableaux were originally conceived for sax and orchestra.  Like the de Falla, they combine atmospheric picture-painting with livelier dance-like rhythms, and again, give Wiggin the opportunity to show off the expressive range of the instrument, and Wiggin and Lenehan both relish the set’s joyful conclusion, ‘Lou cabridan’.  Two arrangements by Lenehan of well-know works by Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992) follow, the complex Fugata followed by the darkly mournful Oblivion, and Wiggin’s sensuous performance here makes this track the standout moment for me. Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Flight of the Bumble-Bee is an ever-popular and fun showpiece, and Wiggin has the opportunity to show off his impressive technical virtuosity here.  Closing the disc, Yoshimatsu’s ‘Sing, Bird’ exploits the saxophone’s ability to bend notes and ‘fly’ up and down its registers in a bird-like fashion, with the piano part providing a rippling support.  Wiggin’s delicate articulation, particularly in the piece’s quiet conclusion, is mesmerising.  This is an impressive collection, definitely achieving Wiggin’s aim of showing the saxophone has a lot more to offer outside its traditional jazz/pop pigeonhole.

Edward Gardner and the BBC Symphony Orchestra have followed up their well-received recording of Elgar’s (1857-1934) Symphony No. 1 with his Symphony No. 2, Op. 63, premiered in 1911 just three years after the great success of the first Symphony.  For this recording, as with the first, Gardner has paired the symphony with one of Elgar’s great works for string orchestra, this time the Serenade for Strings, Op. 20.  After the instant success of his first Symphony, the response to Elgar’s second was more of a slow burn.  Ostensibly dedicated to the late King Edward VII, it is in fact more personally inspired, Elgar saying ‘I have written out my soul’ in the work, along with the Violin Concerto and The Music Makers.  The mammoth opening movement is dominated by a passionate but stately theme, known as the ‘Spirit of Delight’ (a reference to Shelley).  Gardner and the BBCSO give this weight without ever getting bogged down, and the contrast between this and the more complex, reflective passages are all the more striking here.  The funereal second movement also has passion, but again Gardner keeps this under control, bringing out the poignancy of Elgar’s personal lament.  The short Rondo has fitful pace here, and Gardner and the BBCSO players present the finale’s complex fugal passage with taut precision.  As with all his Elgar recordings to date, Gardner never overindulges, but this is never dry or without passion either.  The Symphony is paired here with a warm reading of the youthfully charming Serenade for Strings.  Its three short movements combine lyricism and expression with gently rocking rhythms, and Gardner and the BBCSO strings give us a particularly tender slow movement here.  Another fine Elgar recording from Gardner, highly recommended.

(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in GScene, August 2018)

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