I’m not sure it’s possible for a saxophone quartet to be a warhorse, as such; nonetheless, I was initially mildly surprised to see that the Ferio Saxophone Quartet’s first disc for Chandos didn’t include Glazunov’s quartet. Instead, this young British ensemble has focused on two areas of the repertoire: original 19th- and early 20th-century French music for sax quartet, and 21st-century works for the same forces. They sit surprisingly well together.
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.