Ferio Saxophone Quartet at the Earl Cameron Theatre
Like an old friend with a new hairstyle, a familiar classical favourite played with an entirely different instrumentation allows you to encounter the piece anew and appreciate it all over again.
That was the opportunity afforded the audience by the highly accomplished musicians of Ferio Saxophone Quartet at the Earl Cameron Theatre.
The soprano sax, played by Huw Wiggin, assumed the role of what would traditionally have been first violin, while the alto sax, played by Ellie McMurray, took on the second violin parts. The viola part was adopted by Jose Bañuls on tenor sax, while Shevaughan Beere on baritone took on the role of the cello.
Celebrating some of the important works of the classical canon and introducing exciting new works of 21st-century composers, the programme was chosen, we were told, to showcase the versatility of the instrument now almost exclusively associated with jazz, but whose roots are classical.
The first half of the programme included Bach’s Fugue in G Minor and the three movements of his Italian Concerto, while Greig’s Air from Holberg Suite Op 40, with its elegant, haunting phrases brought us into the 20th century.
Written for instruments with a completely different timbre, the latter piece emphasised the woodwind elements of the saxophone, more elegiac than some of the other pieces and with an oriental feel in places.
There were also two pieces written expressly for saxophone, the first being Petit Quatuor pour Saxophones by Jean Francaix, a composition of three movements starting off in a light-hearted, playful mood evocative of “gay Paree”, before shifting to the strange, melancholy phrases of the second movement, which evoked the long shadows of an autumn afternoon. The witty final movement returned to the lively, playful mood of the first.
The first half of the programme ended with the energetic, exciting Hoe Down composed by Will Gregory and featuring the baritone saxophone.
Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor began the second half of the programme, in which three Bermudian students, Ross Cooper, Ryan Topple and Gareth Cooper, all on alto sax, joined the professionals on stage. It was pleasing to see emerging artists being given the opportunity to stretch themselves in this way.
There followed two movements of Hugo Reinhart’s Quartet in F Minor, something of an anachronism, having been written for saxophone in the 20th century but in the style of the 18th. The lyrical adagio was pastoral in tone, while the presto was full of animation. The programme ended with two compositions by contemporary Dutch composer Guillermo Lago. The first, With Ships the Sea was Sprinkled Far and Nigh, was from a series inspired by the poems of William Wordsworth and commissioned by the quartet. It began with a reading of the poem and was bright and energetic in feel. Cuidades, a series of “musical postcards” rounded out the evening. Featured were Montevideo, Sarajevo and Addis Ababa, each hauntingly evocative of the spirit of the place. Graciously, this talented quartet returned for an encore featuring an excerpt from Handel’s Water Music.
The evening’s programme presented beautiful music in a delightfully fresh way, resulting in a deeper appreciation of the features of both instrument and music not noticed before.
Image: Earl Cameron Theatre
On Saturday 30th September Andrew McGregor was joined on BBC Radio 3 Record Review by oboist and producer Sarah Devonald to review the latest wind CD releases. The Ferio Saxophone Quartet’s recording for Chandos, ‘Flux‘, featured on the programme. McGregor and Devonald discussed the recording at length and praised it very highly for the choice of repertoire, the calibre of the performances by Ferio and the quality of the sound.
First up was Bozza’s Andante et Scherzo pour quatour saxophones, after which Sarah Devonald set the context by commenting:
“They have chosen a really interesting programme for their debut CD on Chandos, they are really tracing the history of the saxophone quartet through these composers from Singelée onwards ……..a really interesting pastiche from Hugo Reinhart….. which really works and they play it beautifully”
On Lago’s Sarajevo Devonald said:
‘I love that mix of yearning nostalgia and busy minimalist figures … the drama here… It is thought out in a great deal of detail… I love the way that the Ferios translate that so well… when that busy figure starts, the bottom players give a lovely soft attack to their tonguing, make a really lovely breathy sound to allow the melodies to soar in a much more clear cut way over the top…. I mean really fantastic performance.’
Further views expressed by Andrew McGregor and Sarah Devonald were:
“I really admire the way the Ferios have done this. They have not resorted to any arrangements at all … I think it works very well as a CD”
“It has been beautifully recorded”
“A really successful CD”
Ferio Saxophone Quartet
In 2015, saxophonist Huw Wiggin’s recital was the highlight of the Brighton Festival’s lunchtime concerts, and the following year he returned with the fellow members of the Ferio Saxophone Quartet to wow audiences once again.So it’s great to see that they now have a recording contract with Chandos and have launched their debut commercial disc with a wonderful programme of original works for the saxophone quartet.
The centerpiece of the disc is a set of six Cíudades (Cities) by the Dutch saxophonist Willem van Merwijk, under his composing pen name of Guillermo Lago (b.1960). They performed a selection of these at that Festival gig, and the persistent energy of Tokyo, the mournful, eastern inflections of Sarajevo, as well as the bustling Addis Ababa struck me as highly evocative then. So it’s great to hear the other movements, such as the rhythmically driven Córdoba with its contrasting slow sections, and the Piazzolla-esque slow tango, Montevideo.
The quartet inhabits each of these cities, and communicates their evocative moods well. They clearly like Lago’s music, as they have since commissioned another work, ‘The Wordsworth Poems’. Lago’s writing is very atmospheric here too, and the quartet exploits some very quiet playing in the first movement, ‘Composed on Westminster Bridge’, to great effect.
The disc opens with an altogether more sedate affair, a delightful Grand Quatuor concertant by the Belgian composer Jean-Baptise Singelée (1812-1875), with great melodic invention, allowing each instrument to shine. This is followed by an elegant set of variations on a jaunty little theme, the Introduction et variations sur une ronde populaire by Gabriel Pierné (1863-1937).
This earlier, more Romantic repertoire allows the quartet to demonstrate their ability to create a beautifully unified, warm tone, as well as bring each instrument to the fore when required.
The recording is rounded off with a lively Hoe Down by Will Gregory (b.1959) (of Goldfrapp fame), showcasing the baritone sax amid the dancing rhythms.
Even if you don’t think you like the saxophone (although why wouldn’t you?), this deserves attention for the sheer variety of repertoire and the impressive talent of these four players. Highly recommended.
An 80-minute programme of original works for saxophone quartet? The seven works here are roughly chronological: Jean-Baptiste Singelée (1812-1875) must have been one of the first composers to write for the instrument, let alone for four, while short pieces by Pierné and Bozza from the 1930s are charming and approachable. More substantial are recent works by Guillermo Lago (aka the Dutch saxophonist Willem van Merwijk) and Hugo Reinhard: Lago’s Ciudades (‘Cities’) takes us on a whistlestop tour from Sarajevo to Addis Ababa via cities including Tokyo and Montevideo, and his three Wordsworth Poems, finished this year and dedicated to the quartet, are concise and touching.
Playing is of the highest level throughout, as is the stunning recorded sound.
But what’s immediately striking about this disc is the tonal subtlety and expressiveness of the Ferios’ playing. Put aside any preconceptions about how a sax quartet sounds: from the very first item, Jean-Baptiste Singelée’s Grand quatuor of 1862 (dedicated, delightfully, to Ambroise Thomas), you can hear the transparency of the group’s tone and the range of their tonal palette, from the melting sweetness of Huw Wiggin’s soprano to the dark, trenchant sound of Shevaughan Beere on baritone.
Their phrasing is buoyant and lyrical; slow, impressionistic passages such as the opening of Pierné’s Introduction et variations and of the first of Guillermo Lago’s Wordsworth Poems (a Ferio commission) are lucidly and atmospherically voiced. But they can turn on a ha’penny too: witness their sonic transformation from smoky melancholy in ‘Sarajevo’ from Lago’s Cíudades to neon-lit urban glare in the suite’s second movement, ‘Tokyo’.
Lots to discover and enjoy here, then, in intensely musical performances. I was rather taken by Hugo Reinhart’s F minor Quintet – composed in 2006 in an idiom that makes Mendelssohn look avant-garde, and none the worse for it. That’s the nice thing about sax quartets – traditional assumptions about repertoire rarely apply.
But in this case, at least, the artistry of the performances is beyond question.
Sax addicts have never had it so good, as the growing number of albums, especially those by quartets, so amply demonstrates. One of the finest foursomes to come my way were the Tetraphonics, whose disc of 20th-century works is a must for all lovers of the genre. As I lamented at the time, it would have been a Recording of the Year if my quota hadn’t already been filled. Since then I’ve enjoyed collections by the Rascher Saxophone Quartet – In Memoriam Pehr Henrik Nordgren, Eight Sounds – and listened to albums by the Copenhagen and Kenari quartets; the latter’s French CD was well received by Stephen Barber.
The Ferio Saxophone Quartet, a multi-award-winning group, made their debut on London’s South Bank in 2015. They’re also the St. John’s Smith Square Young Artist for 2016/17, and Flux is the first in a planned series of recordings for Chandos. It’s an interesting programme that includes The Wordsworth Poems, commissioned from Guillermo Lago (the Dutch saxophonist Willem van Merwijk). The Copenhagen disc I mentioned earlier – Scandinavian Classics SC220575, also available as a well-priced download from eClassical – contains the Bozza; the Kenari one, which I listened to in its 24-bit guise via eClassical, offers that and the Pierné too.
Where better to start than with the sole surviving movement of Jean-Baptiste Singelée’s Grand Quatuor concertant, composed just 21 years after Adolphe Sax unveiled his ophicléide à bec. It’s a sprightly number that exploits the range and character of each instrument.
More important, it demonstrates the astonishing quality of this ensemble, whose intonation, articulation and blend are faultless. Factor in a wonderful sense of ease and affection and you have terrific opener. And the praise doesn’t end there, for the recording, made in what sounds like a most grateful acoustic, is warm, detailed and uncommonly nuanced.
Next up is Gabriel Pierné’s Introduction et variations sur une ronde populaire, written for the French saxophonist Marcel Mule and his Quatuor de la Musique de la Garde républicaine. It’s something of a staple, but then it’s not difficult to understand why; unusually, it combines the weight and sonority of a wind band with the deftness and transparency of a string quartet.
In this recording the timbres of each instrument – the lower ones especially – register in a way they seldom do. As for the players, their clean, propulsive delivery is a joy to hear.
Shrewd programming is essential to the success of collections such as this, and I’m pleased to report there’s not a dull moment here.
The soulful start to Eugène Bozza’s Andante et scherzo underlines the jazz-inflected, almost improvisatory nature of the piece.
The playing is wonderfully agile, particularly in the animated second half. But that’s not all, for the Ferios infuse everything they do with such a lovely, engaging personality. Moreover, there’s a tantalising sense of musicians making music just for you, and that’s a rare privilege. As ever, the sound is splendid, and that adds immeasurably to the feel of being there. In fact, this is one of the finest Chandos recordings I’ve heard in recent years.
The most substantial work here is van Merwijk’s Ciudades (Cities). It’s a mini-travelogue, a set of musical snapshots, that conveys the essence of places for which the composer has a special affinity or affection. Sarajevo has a haunting, muezzin-like call at its core, not to mention vital, dancing rhythms.
The imaginative writing and, not least, the supple playing, left me slack-jawed with admiration. Tokyo is all bustle – what articulation – and Cologne is more of a dark meditation; Córdoba and Montevideo brim with interest, and Addis Ababa has an open-hearted vigour that’s most beguiling.
Van Merwijk really knows how to write for this combo – hardly surprising, as he played baritone sax in the Aurelia Saxophone Quartet for 30 years – and the range and colour he draws from these instruments is just exhilarating. Needless to say, our feisty foursome are well up to the challenge. Indeed, if you download just one work from this album it must be this one.
As for The Wordsworth Poems, they’re spare yet gently evocative, the transparency of both the playing and sound chiming perfectly with these changing moods and vistas.
Really, ‘thumbnails’ such as these don’t do justice to the quiet artistry of this quartet, whose playing in Hugo Reinhart’s wide-ranging and highly virtuosic Quartet in F minor and Will Gregory’s Hoe Down is every bit as assured as anything else in this delectable programme.
The insistent, fiddle-like rhythms of the latter will surely bring a smile to your face – they did to mine. My only quibble – and it’s a very minor one – is that Ingrid E. Pearson’s otherwise excellent liner-notes don’t follow the order of play. That said, the bold sub-headings do help when scanning for a particular piece.
After such complete and compelling performances, it seems almost pointless to compare them with those of the Copenhagen and Kenari quartets. The Danes, more closely recorded, are certainly an elegant group, but their account of the Bozza has little of the poetry – the nuance and feeling – that makes the Ferio version so memorable. The Kenaris – too brightly lit for me – may be closer to the newcomers in spirit, but they’re no match for them in either the Bozza or the Pierné. Alas, that applies to their entire album, which can seem a tad relentless at times.
If anything, these brief comparisons confirm just how gifted the Ferios really are; they also underline the sheer presence and tonal sophistication of this new recording. I’d say the Chandos sound compares very favourably with that of the Tetraphonics album (Cybele).
In short, Flux is the perfect calling card, and it should win the group lots of new friends and followers. It also bodes well for the rest of this series.
What a fabulous foursome; bar-raising musicianship and sound.
Seen and Heard International, Simon Thompson
When most music lovers think of the Edinburgh Festival they think of big touring opera productions, visiting orchestras at the Usher Hall or superstar recitalists at the Queen’s Hall; but if you look beyond the confines of the EIF and into the Fringe, then you’ll often find a lot of very high quality music out there too.
Every year at the Fringe, Edinburgh’s branch of the Royal Overseas’ League, at the prestigious address of 100 Princes Street, hosts a series of intimate concerts featuring artists who are on the way up. For those in the know, these are highly desirable tickets, and it helps that they serve refreshments afterwards! I’ve never been disappointed by a concert I’ve attended here, and they’re often pretty experimental in their repertoire.
So it proved with Ferio Saxophone Quartet’s morning concert in their Bach for Breakfast series. It turns out that Bach suits the saxophone rather well! The Italian Concerto bounded along with tremendous energy, with a soaring soprano line for the central aria, and their chosen prelude from the Well Tempered Clavier was dazzling, as was the G minor prelude and fugue. Perhaps the instruments suited their choice of Renaissance vocal movements even better. Byrd’s Ave Verum soared richly, and their arrangement of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater integrated the famous walking bass into the rest of the texture very successfully.
The Argus, *****
Introducing the concert, [Huw} Wiggin said the [Ferio Saxophone Quartet] liked to show the versatility of the saxophone. And who would have guessed that this combo would have leant itself so well to the creation of such a superbly varied programme?
Jean-Baptiste Singelée was one of the first composers to treat the saxophone seriously and wrote pieces for his friend Adolphe Sax, inventor of this hybrid instrument. Singelée’s First Quartet opened the concert and it was a revelation to discover how well the soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxophones could deliver a classical piece with such grace and subtlety.
More modern compositions by Michael Torke and Jean Rivier allowed the musicians to express delicate harmonies, with execution that was full of expression.
The quartet’s dexterity was fully realised in Guillermo Lago’s brilliant Ciudades, an ongoing series of sketches from cities including Tokyo, Sarajevo and Addis Ababa, which captured the scintillating atmospheres of these places in all their vibrant and haunting beauty.
This was the kind of festival performance that, out of the unexpected, lifted the lid on a new world of sound.
Brighton Festival 10th May 2016 at Brighton Dome
We were enticed musically right around the world, the style varying from classic formality to blended barber-shop smoothness, with wonderful effects of bustle and rush, yelps and squeals, clicks, clucks and the knelling of bells. Exquisite pace, mood and dynamics demonstrated perfectly to sceptics like me that saxophones are beautifully musical, easily rivalling vocal or string quartets. Michael Torke’s thrilling ‘July’ and Guillermo Lago’s poignant ‘Sarajevo’ and exuberant ‘Addis Ababa’ were highlights of a very well selected programme which ended perfectly with the encore, Astor Piazzolla’s ‘Close your eyes and listen’. Money where my mouth is: I bought their CD!
Studio Theatre, Brighton Dome, 10 May 2016