French Music for Alto Saxophone.
JOLIVET: Fantaisie-Impromptu. MAURICE: Tableaux de Provence. CHARPENTIER: Gavambodi 2. RUEFF: Chanson et passepied. DECRUCK: Sonata.
Michael Ibrahim (saxophone); John Morrison (piano).
Cala CACD77012 TT: 43:08.

French sax. A CD of -- excepting André Jolivet -- minor French composers. This doesn't necessarily count as a strike against anybody. While for me a light piece by André Jolivet blows away everything else on the program, I still enjoyed the CD quite a bit. Nothing wrong with music for pleasure, and everyone here seems to have that goal in mind. After all, I can't listen to Der Ring des Nibelungen all the time. I haven't the mental or psychological fiber. Come to think of it, too much fiber in the diet leads to tummy and other problems. French composers have had an idiosyncratic approach to the saxophone and generally treat it as a Romantic singing instrument. Little be-bop wailing or "extended" playing here.

Jolivet seems to me to have gotten a rotten deal in discussions of 20th-century French music, in that he has become nearly invisible. In my collecting, I've concentrated mainly on the "pure music" works: concertos and instrumental chamber music. Every piece I've heard argues for his resurrection. Jolivet began as an avant-gardiste, studying with Edgard Varèse and drawing on Schoenberg's atonality. Jolivet quickly moved from Varèse's radical stance but kept his teacher's attraction to ritual and primitivism. He also became dissatisfied with both Stravinsky (who dominated French music between the two world wars) and Schoenberg -- neoclassicism and serialism. He wanted warmth without overheating, a more "human" music, and with Messiaen, Baudier, and Daniel-Lesur founded the association Le jeune France. The brief Fantaisie-impromptu begins slowly, a dream of tropical jungles, and then swings to a kind of jazz. The liner notes cite the influence of Gershwin, but to me the music connects more strongly to Milhaud's jazz period. Indeed, at one point, I heard something resembling the fugal subject to La création du monde.

A pupil of Messiaen's, Jacques Charpentier (as far as I know, no relation to Marc-Antoine) became attracted to Indian music. He also studied in Mumbai. A gavambhodi is a South Indian musical scale (notated in the key of C: C - D-flat - E-doubleflat - E-flat - F# - G - A-flat - B-doubleflat). Charpentier's piece falls into three sections: a slow introduction, in which the saxophone explores the scale, mostly in solo recitative, with the occasional supporting chord from the piano; an aggressive, fast middle section, whose rhythm sounds to me like an Indian one; a return to the mood (though not necessarily the music) of the opening. In general, the saxophone adheres to Indian music, while the piano harmonies derives from Messiaen.

Women composers make up the rest of the program. Two of the three had fairly hard lives, due to divorce or relatively early death. Paule Maurice, although born in Paris, identified with Provence. Her Tableaux, originally with orchestral accompaniment, appears here in its piano reduction. She takes off from Les Six, mostly Poulenc and Milhaud. The suite's moods range from joy to wild abandon to tenderness and elegy. Maurice died at 57.

Jeanine Rueff, a student of Henri Busser at the Paris Conservatoire, also played the saxophone. Her Chanson et passepied is pure French neoclassicism and reveals a refined ear for harmony and a mastery of artful, unintrusive counterpoint. Clarity of idea infuses the work.

Fernande Decruck married a saxophonist. The couple would later separate, but in the meantime, she wrote many works for the instrument. The Sonata comes from 1943 and may exist with an orchestral accompaniment. In four movements, the score trades mostly in a delicate emotional reticence, owing harmonically much to Ravel. I like best the fourth movement, "Nocturne et finale (Calme, très modéré)." It evokes the magic in the night air, much like Debussy's Trois Nocturnes for orchestra.

Michael Ibrahim plays at low dynamic without breaking and high without screech or burr. He puts out a beautiful, ever-moving musical line, and all with a gorgeous tone. Sometimes he impersonated a French horn. John Morrison accompanies superbly, merging selflessly with the soloist. As far as the program and the performances go, a highly-recommendable CD. I do complain about the brief amount of music which takes up about 53% of disc capacity on a full-price disc.

S.G.S. (July 2014)