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CD Feature/ Amstel Quartet: "Amstel Peijl"

Oct 31

CD Feature/ Amstel Quartet: "Amstel Peijl"

Puts things into perspective: A private quest of musical genealogy.
Christopher Nolan’s “Memento” wasn’t only a surprising and suspenseful thriller in the “film noir” tradition, it was also an intruiging investigation into the question of whether there is a future for someone without a past. The same issue, if only in the context of the Saxophone Quartet, lies at the heart of “Amstel Peijl”. While the format has by now firmly established itself in the concert halls of the world with a repertoire that keeps growing continually, its history only really started in the second half of the twentieth century and rather resembles a small slice of Swiss chesse than a sizeable chunk of Gouda. It is therefore up to the Amstel Quartet to demonstrate different developments, uncover lines which have been running in parallel motion and to put things into perspective.

Needless to say this musical genealogy is not only an act of science. For the Amstel Quartet, it is a private quest as well. The formation of the ensemble as such already represented an artistic search for meaning and of finding out where one belongs. When the members of this fourpiece were still going their separate ways, after all, the Saxophone Quartet was still considered rather exotic – at least among the general public. To Remco Jak (Soprano), Olivier Sliepen (Alto), Bas Apswoude (Tenor) and Ties Mellema (Baritone), however, every single sound of music they encountered, was demanding an answer to the question of what it would sound like when performed by the power of their combined instruments, every composition was scrutinised to find out about its potential for a new arrangement. To them, the story of the Saxophone Quartet and of their joint project under the “Amstel” banner is the story of how they were finally able to perform the repertoire they wanted in the lineup they so dearly loved.

On a second level, “Amstel Peijl” is also very much a nationally tinged effort. Its title references the Dutch system of gauging the relation of water and land by placing stone markers at strategic places in town – an essential tool for preventing minor and major catastrophes in a country which just as much lives from the symbiosis it enjoys with this element as from the fears of its devastating impact. And then, of course, it is yet another brick in the wall of a long tradition of Saxophone Quartets. One therefore has to understand the title, which pays no heed to the demands of an increasingly internationalised business, as a clear indication that the ensemble will both stay true to its ideals and to its roots.

In terms of repertoire, “Amstel Peijl” truly lives up to its aims. It features the three compositional forms which have, intermittently and each at its time, been in the limelight of the genre: The early experiment, the transcription and the Saxophone Quartet as a mature type of its own. Alexander Glazunov holds the honour of being the author of what possibly constitutes the first score in this respect. His “Saxophone Quartet” dates back all the way to 1932 and already captures a lot of what makes this instrumental combination such an instantaneously captivating affair: The warm and dense sound, its rhythmic flexibility, a perfect melodic and harmonic clarity despite the strong melting sensation of the individual voices as well as a consoling timbre, which even transcends the more melancholic passages into wonderfully bittersweet joy. With its unusual form, it also highlights the progressive potential of the Quartet in terms of arrangement.

Gabriel Faure’s “Pelleas et Melisande”, meanwhile, fills the gaping gap which preceeds Glazunov’s work. Reworked by Wijnand van Klaveren, who also takes on painistic duties here, it is a piece of romantic inclinations, an undulating ballad in four movements, which doesn’t seem to be able to escape its circling chord schemes, which never really come to a conclusion.

As Paul Janssen points out in his linernotes, there have been plentiful examples of Saxophone Quartets since then, but none has probably been as influential and popular as the one written by Philip Glass. Glass’ Quartet springs from an opening movement which acts as a nucleus, presenting the thematic material, juxtaposing it and testing its compatibility and friction areas. More than in his other works, the rhythmic pulse is topped off with sensous melodies, its complexity replaced with perpetually changing formations within the group taking charge.

With the exception of the second part, which seems to be more of an intellectual intermezzo, the movements are marked by a stunning emotionality, which grabs one immediately and without mercy. Among the recordings of this seminal piece, there is even a rendition performed by the Rascher Saxophone Quartet, which has been released on Glass’ own Orange Mountain Music label. In direct comparison, the version by the Amstel Quartet is softer, more tender and graceful, with especially the quiet third movement shining in a surreal nocturnal light.

“After many explorations in the area of modern and most modern music, the Amstel Quartet now sets its own standard with these three pieces”, Janssen writes and that is no exageration. “Amstel Peijl” manages to perform those all-important splits between a personal expression and a universal statement. And, to put it less academically, it is both a rewarding musical essay with regards to the genre’s history and an album which you can listen to without having to put a dictionary near your comfty chair. Let’s see when Christopher Nolan finally notices these guys when deciding upon his next soundtrack.

By Tobias Fischer