Monday, February 26, 2018

Fascinating Arrangements from Alliage Quintett

courtesy of Sony Music

This past Friday Sony Classical released its latest album of the Alliage Quintett, entitled Lost in Temptation. Based in Germany, this group consists of keyboardist Jang Eun Bae together with the saxophone quartet of Daniel Gauthier (soprano), Hayrapet Arakelyan (alto), Simon Hanrath (tenor), and Sebastian Pottmeier (baritone). As might be guessed, most of their selections are arrangements, some of which involve the collaboration of the entire group.

No explanation is given for the album title. However, I can come up with at least one viable hypothesis. While a group like the Rova Saxophone Quartet has sustained itself through its own inventive approaches to improvisation and collaborations with particularly adventurous composers and performers, Alliage, on this album at least, has given in to the “temptation” of familiar “chestnuts” from the standard instrumental repertoire. However, surrendering to that temptation requires the creation of viable arrangements for performances, which is, of course, as process of translation. The title is thus a play on that familiar phrase (and movie title) “lost in translation.”

The only problem with this explanation is that there is very little, if any, sense of loss in how those old chestnuts have been arranged. Indeed, when it comes to the “Danse Bacchanale” from Camille Saint-Saëns’ opera Samson and Delilah (which many would probably call the “mother of all warhorses”) Pottmeier’s arrangement may actually have improved on the original. In many ways the sonorities of a soprano saxophone come closer to a “Levantine spirit” than any of Saint-Saëns’ uses of his wind section; and, while the piano is far from a Levantine instrument, Pottmeier gives Bae a relatively spare part, present more for specific colors than for any role in melody, counterpoint, or harmony.

It is also worth observing that the album also offers “arrangements of arrangements,” so to speak. Thus, Ottorino Respighi’s three Ancient Airs and Dances suites were all the results of the composer “translating” sixteenth-century lute music. Lost in Temptation offers the first of these suites in an arrangement by Wijnand van Klaveren, which suggested that the arranger had as much respect for the original source material as Respighi did. This resulted in at least a few (if not more) passages where lute sonorities won out over Respighi’s orchestrations; and, of course, the intimacy of the Alliage ensemble has a spirit that owes more to the sixteenth century than to the twentieth. There is also a collaborative arrangement of seven Scottish airs arranged by Gustav Holst. I am less familiar with Holst’s score than I am with Respighi’s; but here, again, there was a sense that the source material had more to do with what Alliage played than did what Holst had committed to paper.

Taken as a whole, one would say that this is an album that throws new light on the familiar. However, while many arrangements tend to distort, the Alliage treatments tend to suggest new ways of listening to pieces that we thought we knew “all too well” (as Leporello put it in response to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s self-quotation in the second act of Don Giovanni). Even a selection as familiar as the lullaby that is the fourth song in Johannes Brahms’ Opus 49 collection assumes a new view of mother-child affection. This may not have been the view Brahms had in mind, but it is equally compelling.

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