by James Manheim
Saxophone quartets have flourished along with brass quintets as concert presenters seek high-quality ensembles that don’t cost a fortune. The Italian Saxophone Quartet hasn’t been one of the better-known entrants in the field, but this release from the U.S., where the group has frequently toured, serves notice of a talent that’s well above average. The showpiece is the group Cuatros estaciones porteñas, or Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, by Astor Piazzolla. Not composed as a set, these works make no reference to the Four Seasons of Antonio Vivaldi, but they have been heavily exposed due to the perceived similarity in conception. The arrangement here, apparently by the members of the Italian Saxophone Quartet themselves, is among the most successful of the versions of these pieces for classical concert instruments (the group avoids jazz inflections in the Argentine works, although they shift gears at the end with Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and rarely recorded Rialto Ripples). In general, the saxophone, though rarely used in this context, is a strong instrument for Piazzolla due to the component of noise in its sound, and Piazzolla’s tangos benefit from the quality the composer called “mud.” Better still, the performers do an uncannily good job of evoking the sound of Piazzolla’s bandoneón in duets. The alto saxophone of Marco Gerboni sounds like a free reed instrument until the group switches to works originally composed in other media. There he and the rest of the group revert to more conventionally clean wind harmonies. The piano of Paolo Zannini is effectively used to impart rhythmic energy while staying in the background, just as in the original pieces. When the program departs from tango it’s less distinctive, although the Suite hellénique of Spanish composer Pedro Iturralde, apparently the only work on the program composed for saxophone quartet, is a useful addition to the repertory with its jazz and flamenco elements. The disc as a whole is recommended to anyone who enjoys wind or brass ensemble music, and especially to presenters, who ought to acquaint themselves with this group.