Vocalises are, traditionally, textless vocal exercises sung to one or more vowels, but in 1906 a voice professor at the Paris Conservatoire, Amédée-Louis Hettich (1856-1937) commissioned contemporary composers to write vocalise-etudes that would raise such pieces from mere exercises to works of art in their own right.
Over a period of thirty years he persuaded composers ranging from Paul Dukas to Olivier Messiaen to write vocalise-etudes that were used as examination pieces for voice students at the Conservatoire. It was not just French composers who provided these works. Such figures as Bohuslav Martinů, Carl Nielsen and Heitor Villa-Lobos also responded to commissions. Over 150 of the vocalises were published in fourteen volumes entitled Répertoire Moderne de Vocalises-Études. Several of the vocalise-etudes have been arranged for various instruments.
Saxophonist, Harry White www.harrywhite.net and pianist Edward Rushton www.edwardrushton.net/pianist.html have recorded 23 of the vocalise-etudes arranged for alto saxophone and piano on a new release for BIS Records www.bis.se/index.php
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With Paul Dukas’ (1865-1935) Vocalise-Étude ‘alla Gitana’ (1909) the piano chords bring a rather Iberian feel before the alto saxophone joins in a fine melody, the two weaving some rather wonderful lines. There are moments of reflective poetry with a variety of tone from the saxophone, often finding a lovely warm tone but with moments of brilliance. Georges Auric’s (1899-1983) Vocalise-Étude (1926) has a nostalgic charm of its own with the piano running a lovely line alongside the saxophone melody.
There is a firmer touch to Francis Poulenc’s (1899-1963) Vocalise-Étude (1927) with rather a deliberate theme, the saxophone rising to moments of intensity, developing some strong chords from the piano as well as moments of gentler reflection. The Belgium, Joseph Jongen (1873-1953) brings a rhythmic skip, with a sense of fun to his Vocalise-Étude ’Sérénade’, Op. 83 (1928), the saxophone weaving some lovely passages before finding a more leisurely flow midway, all the while the piano accompaniment providing a wonderfully light touch.
Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) is the most recent composer on this disc to provide a work for this collection. The piano introduces a rather oriental sounding theme for his Vocalise-Étude (1935) which the saxophone gently takes forward over a rising and falling, rippling piano accompaniment. This is a quite haunting theme with both these performers finding much sensitivity. The music rises centrally with later, occasional subtle dissonances. This is a little gem full of Messiaen fingerprints.
Arthur Honegger (1892-1955) was Swiss by parentage but born in France. With his Vocalise-Étude (1929) the piano lays down a line over which the saxophone brings a melancholy melody. There are some particularly rich saxophone sonorities in this very fine little piece. Albert Roussel’s (1869-1937) Vocalise-Étude ’Aria’ (1928) has a fine rhythmic lilt for piano over which the saxophone weaves some terrific passages, rising in dynamics at times, these two players revealing an instinctive rapport.
Joseph Canteloube (1879-1957) will be known to most people for his collection of orchestrated folksongs from the Auvergne region of France, Chants d'Auvergne. His Vocalise-Étude ‘en forme de Bourrée’ (1927) has a boisterous opening for the piano to which the saxophone joins to take us on a jolly journey, full of freedom and spirit. The saxophone brings a lovely melody over a piano accompaniment in Darius Milhaud’s (1892-1974) Vocalise-Étude ‘Air’, Op. 105 (1928), weaving forward, full of harmonic shifts.
Pierre de Bréville’s (1861-1949) Vocalise-Étude’ Maneh’ (1907) has a delicate, very French opening for the piano to which the saxophone brings a tranquil, quite beautiful melody. Both players provide wonderful phrasing, rising in little dynamic moments, through a short solo passage for saxophone to a gentle coda.
Florent Schmitt (1870-1958) was born in the Lorraine region of France bordering Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany. His Vocalise-Étude pour Erik Satie, Op. 130 (1906) has a flowing piano accompaniment as the saxophone takes the theme slowly ahead with some long melodic lines, increasing in tempo and dynamics occasionally yet retaining a fine flow.
There is a typically gentle, thoughtful opening for piano to Maurice Ravel’s (1875-1937) Vocalise-Étude ‘en forme de Habanera’ (1907) with the saxophone bringing a quite lovely theme, full of flourishes and scented Iberian flavour. Louis Vierne’s (1870-1937) Vocalise-Étude à Monsieur A. L. Hettich (1907) moves forward with a fine melody for the saxophone, underlined by an insistent piano motif. Later both performers weave the melody, with some lovely decorations from the saxophone.
A chord from the piano introduces a slow, quiet theme for saxophone in Jean Huré’s (1877-1930) Vocalise-Étude (1922), the piano adding fine chords intermittently to accompany the melody. This is music full of nostalgic charm, very French, with almost Ravelian moments. Jacques Ibert (1890-1962) opens his Vocalise-Étude ‘Aria’ (1927) with a leisurely, rising and falling piano motif before the saxophone brings a lovely melody with some lovely sonorities, this player always finding new timbres and subtle colours.
The Hungarian composer, László Lajtha (1892-1963) provides a lively, rhythmic Vocalise-Étude (1930) with both performers weaving and chasing through varying tempi and dynamics with beautifully controlled playing from both. Alexander Labinsky’s (1894-1963) Vocalise-Étude ‘Ferveur’ (pub. 1931) is revealed as a gently undulating melody, very much in a lighter vein.
Russian composer, Alexander Gretchaninov (1864-1956) was in France when he composed his Vocalise-Étude (pub. 1929), later settling in the USA. Sudden dynamic piano phrases open the piece with the saxophone adding a long held note before bringing a theme over the piano. The saxophone rises around the piano before a decisive coda.
Nikolai Tcherepnin (1873-1945) was another Russian composer and father of the composer and pianist Alexander Tcherepnin. In 1921, he moved to Paris and lived there for the rest of his life. His Vocalise-Étude (1927) has a quizzical little motif for piano that is taken up into a theme for the saxophone and developed through some atmospheric passages, finding a slightly eastern flavour. This is a rather mesmerising piece.
The Czech composer, Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959) was living in Paris when he wrote his Vocalise-Étude, H. 188 (1930). It has a lively theme introduced by the piano, with the saxophone soon joining to dash ahead, full of life and good humour, through a jazz inflected passage reflecting the influences on the composer at that time.
The Italian composer, Francesco Malipiero’s (1882-1973) Vocalise-Étude (1928) has a slow little motif for piano, which the sax unfolds to reveal as a beautiful haunting melody. It rises in dynamics before finding a quiet end with some absolutely lovely saxophone sonorities and timbres.
Danish composer, Carl Nielsen 1865-1931) wrote his Vocalise-Étude (1927) late in his career after his sixth and final symphony, Sinfonia semplice (1924-24) and Flute Concerto (1926). The leisurely melody that opens soon finds some unusual intervals with many twists and turns before picking up in a rhythmic, faster moving section before slowing to wander gently forward, the piano keeping a gentle rhythm.
The Brazilian composer, Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) stayed in Paris in 1923–24 and 1927–30 where Parisian concerts of his music made a strong impression, certainly sufficient to encourage a commission for his Vocalise-Étude (1929). Sudden piano chords open the work immediately followed by a fast moving theme for saxophone over insistent piano chords. There are sudden little dynamic piano chords as the saxophone pushes the theme forward. Sudden little descending piano chords arrive as the saxophone finds a languid coda.
Saxophonist, Harry White and pianist, Edward Rushton prove to be a first class duo. Indeed, White is one fine saxophonist who, together with the most sensitive of accompanists brings such a variety of tone, textures, sonority and colour not to mention panache.
There are some famous names from 20th century music here on a disc that is full of great variety and interest. Indeed there are some terrific little gems here that will bring much enjoyment.
The two artists are well recorded at the SRF Radio Studio, Zurich, Switzerland, giving a nice balance between instruments. There are notes about the background to these works from Harry White.