It was the recordings of saxophonist John Harle that introduced me to the classical saxophone via a range of borrowed melodies [discs like John Harle’s Saxophone Songbook]. On this disc from Orchid Classics, entitled Reflections, the young saxophone player Huw Wiggin, accompanied by John Lenehan (piano) and by Oliver Wass (harp), presents an eclectic programme of music by Alessandro Marcello, Franz Schubert, Edvard Grieg, Camille Saint-Saens, Claude Debussy, Manuel de Falla, Paule Maurice, Astor Piazzolla, Nikolai Rimsky Korsakov and the contemporary Japanese composer Takashi Yoshimatsu.
Invented by Adolphe Sax in the mid-19th century the saxophone was intended as a classical instrument, it never really caught on in orchestras but its ability to play fast passages like a woodwind instrument yet to project like a brass one led it to be popular in military bands. It does crop up occasionally in 19th-century French opera, such as Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet and Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Le Prophete, and Debussy wrote for it. But it would be in jazz that the instrument found a real home in the 20th century. Techniques are different, and it requires a real leap to move from the smokey vibrato-led sleaze of the jazz saxophone to the more straight-toned classical style.
Huw Wiggin’s great virtue on this disc is that he makes it sound so natural and obvious.
He plays with a nice fluid tone, the instrument’s combination of reed and keys with a metal body giving a lovely mix of flexibility and edge to the tone. This is a very mobile sound, but one capable of many different incarnations.
I was particularly struck by the Debussy arrangements, Arabesque No. 1 and The Girl with the Flaxen Hair, where Wiggin is partnered by Oliver Wass’s harp. A seemingly unlikely combination that works real magic. Similarly, the ‘Air’ from Grieg’s Holberg Suite gives an entirely different slant to the music and, as with any good transcription, this one reinvents the music brilliantly.
Debussy’s work for saxophone and orchestra is not on this disc, but we do have 20th-century French composer Paule Maurice’s Tableaux de Provence, originally written for saxophone and orchestra between 1948 and 1955 and consisting of five charming pictures of Provencal life.
Though much of the music on the disc is lyrical, Manuel de Falla’s 7 Canciones populares espanolas give us a chance to sample the saxophone’s rhythmic and textural dexterity, something which appears in a different context in the fast outer movements of Alessandro Marcello’s Concerto and Nikolai Rimsky Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumble Bee.
The Debussy pieces apart, John Lenehan accompanies on the piano, providing a sympathetic and imaginative partnership, as well as doing some of the arrangements.
This is a lovely disc, combining musicianship and imagination, and giving us a fascinating glimpse into the world of the classical saxophone.