January 28, 2016


Telemann: Sonatas for Recorder. Erik Bosgraaf, recorder; Francesco Corti, harpsichord. Brilliant Classics. $7.99.

Grainger: Music for Saxophones. Joyce Griggs, J. Michael Holmes, Phil Pierick, Jesse Dochnahl, Adam Hawthorne, Drew Whiting, Ben Kenis and Adrianne Honnold, saxophones; Casey Gene Dierlam, piano. Naxos. $12.99.

     The sheer variety and wide-ranging abilities of Telemann continue to amaze nearly 250 years after his death. Self-taught as a musician, he became one of the most prolific composers in history (with more than 3,000 works to his name) as well as a more-than-serviceable performer on flute, oboe, violin, double bass – and recorder. The recorder was a far more popular instrument in Telemann’s time than afterwards, and it is no surprise that Telemann, who composed in so many forms and for so many instruments, would write a variety of works for it. The nine sonatas on a new Brilliant Classics CD, seven in four movements and two in three, show the level of virtuosity that Telemann expected of performers of his music, undoubtedly including himself. As with much of Telemann’s music, the works mix Baroque-era styles of various countries: elements are Italian, French and English, and also – noticeably and interestingly – Polish. In particular, Polish folk music here gives a unique flavor to movements otherwise written in a single style or a blend of more-familiar styles. Drawn from various collections of sonatas – Telemann typically produced sonata groupings including works for a variety of instruments – the works played by Erik Bosgraaf and Francesco Corti are both in major keys (four sonatas) and in minor ones (five sonatas). The sonatas’ individual touches make particular movements stand out to fine effect. One in B-flat (No. 28 from Der getreue Music-Meister) is in canon at the unison for all four movements, its sound neatly varied by changes in the time interval between the two voices. One in D minor (No. 7 from Essercizii musici) contrasts a highly ornamented opening movement in Italian style with a second-movement Presto whose syncopations and rhythms reflect Polish folk tunes. One in C minor (No. 2 from Neue Sonatinen) offers a first movement full of rhythmic unpredictability. Many of the movements are small gems – most movements last less than two minutes – and all the works not only show the poise and contrapuntal elegance associated with the Baroque, but also, at the same time, incorporate dancelike and folk-music elements that give the sonatas Telemann’s unique compositional flavor. The first-rate performances here are in assured period style, by players highly conversant with the music and quite comfortable exploring its intricacies and nuances.

     A wonderfully offbeat new Naxos CD focusing on Percy Grainger is less about the composer than about Joyce Griggs, who is the disc’s executive producer, editor, co-producer and primary performer – as well as the writer of its booklet notes. Griggs, whose versatility in multiple roles is evident everywhere here, edited and engraved a variety of saxophone works created by Grainger as arrangements of the music of other composers. Just two of the 16 pieces here are by Grainger himself: The Immovable Do (the only piece on the recording that is not a world premiรจre) and The Lonely Desert-Man Sees the Tents of the Happy Tribes (the only work here that includes an instrument other than the saxophone: a piano). Those two titles show some of Grainger’s own versatility – and oddity – but in the case of this release, Grainger is no more the star than Griggs, and indeed rather less. The composers from whose works Grainger made saxophone arrangements range from the well-known (J.S. and C.P.E. Bach) to the little-known (John Jenkins, 1592-1678), and they lived from the Middle Ages (Guillaume de Machaut, c. 1300-77) to modern times (Sparre Olsen, 1903-84). Griggs performs these works on tenor saxophone most of the time and on alto sax part of the time; her many colleagues use not only those two instruments but also soprano, baritone and bass saxophones. The saxophone comes in so many varieties, with so many ranges, that sax ensembles can blend in a huge number of ways, and they certainly do here. Olsen, for example, is represented by two separate versions of a folk song whose title translates as When Yuletide Comes – one for soprano, alto and tenor saxophones, the other for alto, tenor and baritone instruments. A 6-Part Fantasy by William Lawes (1602-45) is arranged for so many saxophones that the resulting sound is organ-like: Grainger here used two soprano saxes, one alto, one tenor, two baritones and a bass. Another highlight of the disc is the saxophone-quintet version of the anonymous Lisbon, which uses a soprano sax, two altos, tenor and baritone. The sound of Lisbon contrasts fascinatingly with, for example, that of the saxophone sextet (soprano, alto, two tenors, baritone and bass) used in Fugue No. IV from The Well-Tempered Clavier. The careful arrangements throughout this CD speak to Grainger’s instrumental skill as well as his particular love for the saxophone, which he regarded as having a sound more like that of the human voice than any other instrument. Certainly there are many “singing” phrases in the works collected here, but there are also some pointed rhythms, some dancelike exuberance, and a great deal of warm lyricism. Griggs has brought to fruition with this disc a tribute both to Grainger and to the saxophone family, all while creating a highly impressive demonstration of her own versatility both as musical scholar and as performer.

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