The Avenging Spirit, 2021. The Saga Quartet. Contents: Bernhard Heiden, Four Movements for Saxophone Quartet and Timpani; Frederick Fox, The Avenging Spirit; David Dzubay, Di/Con[ver(gence/sions)]. Compact Disc, 8 Tracks (37:44). https://www.equilibri.com/album/EQ159/ $16.99.
The Saga Quartet’s new recording The Avenging Spirit features compositions for the saxophone quartet by Bernhard Heiden, Frederick Fox, and David Dzubay. The album selection was made deliberately to demonstrate the development of the saxophone quartet as an art form. There is an intriguing aspect of compositional lineage here: the German composer Paul Hindemith taught Bernhard Heiden, who himself was the teacher of Frederick Fox, who was the teacher of David Dzubay. The latter three composers represented on this disk serve or have served on faculty at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University Bloomington.
Bernhard Heiden’s Four Movements for Saxophone Quartet and Timpani (1976) opens the album, with timpanist Gordon Hicken joining the quartet. The saxophonists provide an exciting reading of a rarely-heard, high-spirited composition. Hicken’s timpani blends beautifully with the quartet, who play with much warmth of tone and great technical finesse. Of particular note is the Lento, con espressione movement; the composer makes an interesting reference to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 and its famous opening thematic material. The piece ends in typical Heiden fashion, the final movement rising to an impressive climax created by Heiden’s driving rhythms and intense dynamic scheme.
The Avenging Spirit (1989) by Frederick Fox opens with a lyrical solo phrase on the alto saxophone--beautifully executed by Matthew Tracy--that is gradually picked up by the other three players. The quartet shows off their fine control of subtle dynamic shadings in this work, alternating between bright, edgy, clear, dark, and intense colors. The group does not shy away from Fox’s frequent dissonance, dissonance that is underlined by punchy, energetic rhythms and a contrapuntal texture that brings the disparate instrumental voices into constant conflict. The soprano and alto saxophones trade competing lines, while the tenor and baritone saxophones keep the music moving forward. The middle section features a significant solo from baritone saxophonist Andy Wright, who plays with a rasping, yet pleasing timbre.
Di/Con[ver(gence/sions)] (1988) by David Dzubay was composed when the composer was just 24 years old. Although the composition was written over thirty years ago, it still sounds fresh. Dzubay, known for creating highly complex, technically demanding, and emotionally profound music, pushes the performers to explore the technical capabilities of the instrument, as well as the saxophone quartet as a medium. Each member of the quartet plays an important role here, with the unique timbral qualities of the individual instruments highlighted skillfully by the composer. The final movement (Interlude #2-Whirlwind-Epilogue) is the perfect end to the album, which culminates in a viscerally exciting rush of notes.
The disc boasts excellent sound quality and engineering, but it is too short, with only 37 minutes of playing time. The excellent performances and interesting repertoire make one hungry for more. Why not include one or two more challenging pieces for this ensemble?