Engaging recital of obscure, quirky music on saxophone and harp at St Andrew’s

Duo Eolienne: Genevieve Davidson (saxophone) and Michelle Velvin (harp)

Music by Debussy, Yusef Lateef, Britten, Bernard Andres, Satie, William Alwyn

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 11 April 12:15 pm

Here was a recital that seemed to fit the space acoustically and offered a range of mostly unfamiliar music that was yet approachable; many of the audience might well be happy to hear these pieces again.

The first piece was by a sixteen-year-old Debussy: Beau soir (beautiful evening). The words of the poem by Paul Bourget were printed and we were left to assume that the score, presumably voice and piano, had been arranged for saxophone and harp. In a shy, gentle triple rhythm it produced a peaceful mood as the poet employs the image of a stream flowing to the sea suggesting life ending in the grave. It worked well for and was played charmingly by both instruments.

Yusef Lateef’s piece, Romance for soprano saxophone and harp, was actually written for these instruments. It was a longer piece, featuring quirky solos: I was able to tell it had finished only when the next piece, Britten’s Six Metamorphoses after Ovid, for solo oboe (saxophone) began. Its moods varied: evocative, fanciful, imaginative.

Two of Britten’s Six Metamorphoses dealt with Pan and Phaeton. Obviously, the saxophone was well suited to Pan, and the impression of Phaeton who came to grief by riding on the sun’s chariot may well have been an accurate picture of that interesting bit of Greek mythology; they were slight though beautifully crafted pieces.

French composer and harpist Bernard Andrès obviously pursues the classical music rather than popular or jazz tradition. I have the impression that he is a major figure in the contemporary harp fraternity; he wrote a large number of solo harp Preludes and judging by the two he played (nos 12 and 14) owes much to the traditions of Chopin and Debussy. The harp in these Preludes suggested a piano influence, their feet firmly planted on the ground, in music of a formal spirit and shape. The second piece was much livelier than the first.

Satie’s Gnossiennes, Nos 1, 2 and 3, were originally piano pieces but their scoring for saxophone and harp came very close to whatever their classical source was, and these players offered a very convincing case for hearing them in this guise. Though less popular than the Gymnopédies, the Gnossiennes evoke a classical world rather well. There is more variety of melody and texture, and they suggest greater kinship with traditional classical compositional styles and spirits. Satie’s reputation has suffered through being seen, lazily, as little more than an odd-ball, eccentric who was mainly interested in mocking and satirising his contemporaries and the classical tradition. I have long felt that he is a much more important and interesting a composer than that. The plaintive character of the soprano saxophone suited this music; its nuances were a great contribution to the interpretation.

The recital ended with William Alwyn’s Little Suite for Oboe and Harp, obviously an excellent candidate for the switch to soprano sax. Alwyn was, as the programme note said, a rather neglected composer, perhaps because of his fecundity and the multiplicity of genres and styles he adopted. In large part his neglect is that of many composers who chose to remain in the main-stream classical tradition rather than adopt the doctrines of the avant-garde, and who devote themselves to writing for each other and for academic approval rather than for real music lovers.

The three dances were firstly, a Minuet of gentle charm, then a quicker Valse, strongly melodic with a surprise ending, and finally, a fast Jig, with a slower section in the middle and another surprise ending.

This piece in not of Mahlerian scale or moral depth or Boulezian complexity and intellectual bite, but it’s attractive and was played with levity and skill; it suggests that there’s other Alwyn music worth exploring.

So it was an enjoyable, stimulating little recital delivered by two excellent musicians.

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