Ferio Saxophone Quartet, 8 March 2024

Programme Notes



One of the most exciting and versatile kinds of chamber ensemble to gain popularity in recent decades is the saxophone quartet. Like the string quartet, all four instruments are of the same family, which makes for both a euphonious blend of sympathetic timbres and the inherent differences in range defining aspects of the group’s sound. Being a relatively modern ensemble, the saxophone quartet repertory includes transcriptions of pre-existing works alongside new pieces written expressly for this combination of instruments. Many of those who create this repertory are saxophonists themselves. Their collective understanding of how saxophones work singly and as parts of an ensemble results in a fascinating body of work that showcases the saxophone quartet’s vast timbral possibilities.

Handel, arr. Farrington:
Water Music (selections) and Sarabande

On 17 July 1717, King George I and his entourage embarked on a royal barge at Whitehall Palace for a journey up the River Thames to Chelsea, where they enjoyed a lavish supper before re-boarding the barge for their return to Whitehall. One of the most memorable parts of the beautiful summer evening was the music. Fifty musicians, placed on their own set of barges, accompanied the travellers, and a smaller group played during supper. The music they performed was the specially written Water Music by George Frideric Handel (1685-1759). The Thames was filled with boats filled with people wanting to see the royal party, and crowds lined both sides of the river’s banks. Handel’s music certainly had a massive first audience! Nowadays, the Water Music is typically arranged in three groups, or suites. The first is said to have been played on the way from Whitehall to Chelsea, the second during the supper and the third on the return journey. Movements from Water Music continue to be extremely popular with performers and audiences in various guises. Transcriptions exist for a myriad of ensembles, including the saxophone quartet.

This evening, we’ll hear three movements from Handel’s royal collection, all of which are evocations of popular eighteenth-century dances. First is a hornpipe, an animated dance associated with sailors, and therefore water, in that century. Next comes a stately minuet, a dance rooted in social status that radiated proper decorum and mannerisms. Third is a boisterous bourrée, with its characteristically ordered musical phrasing and lively rhythmic underpinning.

To complement the dances from Water Music is a stately sarabande from one of Handel’s collections for solo harpsichord, his Suite in D minor. The sarabande originated as a fast dance with Hispano-Arab origins that evolved in the New World and then returned to Spain. Its fast tempo and related steps were thought to be too salacious for polite society, so the dance was slowed down and given a sheen of courtly elegance.

Elgar, arr. Ferio: Serenade for Strings, op. 20

Edward Elgar (1857-1934) bridged the aesthetic divide between the nature-rooted idyllic world of English Romanticism and the sphere of absolute music – the idea that music existed purely for its own sake. This synthesis is at the heart of Elgar’s three-movement Serenade for Strings, op. 20. Completed in 1892, the Serenade was written for Elgar’s wife, Alice, as a gift on their third wedding anniversary. It had its first performance, in private, by the Worcester Ladies’ Orchestral Society, which Elgar was conducting at the time. When the work was published several years later, it was dedicated to Edward W. Whinfield, a philosopher, amateur musician and organ builder who had encouraged Elgar in his younger days.

In a typical fast-slow-fast format, the first movement opens with a gently swaying pattern in the violas, taken in this evening’s performance by the tenor saxophone. The movement is marked ‘piacevole’ (‘pleasantly’) and its graceful principal theme unfolds over the pastoral rhythmic underpinning. The heartfelt slow movement, filled with rising motions that, after brief hesitations, fall back again, exudes a sense of yearning and repose. Rising figures also dominate the third movement, and a restatement of the opening of the first movement at the end gives the Serenade a satisfying sense of musical unity.

Reinhart: Quartet in F minor (selections)

Among those to have written original works for saxophone quartet is the Paris -born composer Hugo Reinhart (b. 1958). Since the saxophone quartet, unlike the string quartet, does not have any original works from the eighteenth century (the saxophone was not invented until the nineteenth century), Reinhart decided to fill this void, at least in part, with his Quartet in F minor from 2006. Part of Reinhart’s compositional aesthetic is to create new works strongly influenced by earlier musical styles, and this quartet is no exception.

This evening we’ll be treated to the final two movements of Reinhart’s Quartet. The third movement, the traditional slow movement in a four- movement work, is filled with melodic lyricism, while the fourth is a fast-paced perpetual motion. The finale shows its indebtedness to the string quartets of Haydn through dramatic moments of silence and a fiendishly difficult unison passage near the end, during which the four members of the quartet must play the same musical material at breakneck speed.

Gershwin, arr. Wood:
An American in Paris

Like many Americans during the 1920s, George Gershwin (1898-1937) fell in love with Paris. French culture was very much in vogue in the USA during the decade. French food, fashion and music were seen as the epitome of sophistication. An American in Paris, Gershwin’s loving homage to the ‘City of Light’, was inspired by the pianist-composer’s visit there in 1926. Originally for orchestra, it had its first performance on 13 December 1928 at Carnegie Hall by the New York Philharmonic conducted by Walter Damrosch.

Whereas Elgar blended pastoral and absolute music aesthetics and Reinhart the past and the present, Gershwin melded the world of the classical concert hall with the syncopated sounds of urban jazz. He called An American in Paris a ‘rhapsodic ballet’, and in it he combined the improvisatory epic nature of an ancient Greek rhapsody with modern dance-like qualities. Gershwin’s musical kaleidoscope of Parisian images includes evocations of street scenes filled with city noises (including the distinctive sounds of French taxi horns), lively cafes and, in moments of homesickness, sounds emanating from a blues club.

The popularity of An American in Paris has inspired various offspring. Among these is the version by saxophonist, composer and arranger Nigel Wood that we’ll hear this evening. Since Gershwin included saxophones in the original orchestration, this version offers a distinctive homage to Gershwin’s original concept. The ‘rhapsodic ballet’ also inspired a 1951 MGM film starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron and a subsequent 2014 musical (which played in London in 2017), both of which feature, in addition to their own versions of An American in Paris, classic Gershwin songs such as ‘I Got Rhythm’.

My Mountain Top

Like Gershwin, the British tenor saxophonist, composer and teacher Andy Scott (b. 1966) embraces jazz and classical styles in his performing and compositional careers, though both musical approaches have changed considerably since the time of Gershwin. One of Scott’s most frequently performed works, My Mountain Top features a poem read by its author, Lemn Sissay (b. 1967), on a pre-recorded track that also includes various electronic sounds. After Scott finished the music, he sent it to Sissay, who wrote his own words to complement Scott’s evocative, ethereal and shimmering sounds. Sissay is a British poet, playwright and presenter who has received both an MBE (in 2010) and an OBE (in 2021). His poignant poetic words about the power of perseverance are cleverly interwoven among Scott’s musical lines. My Mountain Top was first performed in 1998 by the Apollo Saxophone Quartet, of which Scott was a founding member. Like Handel’s Water Music and Gershwin’s An American in Paris, it has been arranged for various combinations of instruments.

Ciudades (selections)

In a sense, Guillermo Lago’s rhapsodic evocations of various world cities, brought together in his ever-growing collection Ciudades (Cities), shares the same fundamental inspiration as Gershwin’s An American in Paris. They all offer musical reflections of their namesake cities in a collage of various moods and scenes. Lago is the composing alter ego of Dutch saxophonist Willem van Merwijk (b. 1960). Ciudades (Cities) consists of musical sketches of places that have special meaning to the performer-composer. The three movements we’ll hear this evening share the theme of musical partnerships and community. As such, they serve to emphasise the essentiality and equality of all four saxophonists through musical reflections of Lago’s own experiences in each city.

Through its propulsive rhythms, ‘Cordoba’ celebrates the Andalucian town where Lago and his friends busked while students, often in front of the famous Mezquita. Lago dedicated the introspective ‘Sarajevo’ to his many friends in the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In the early 2000s, following the war in the 1990s that devastated the city, van Merwijk was invited to re-establish the saxophone program at the Sarajevo Music Academy. Finally, ‘Addis Ababa’ recalls Lago’s visit to the capital of Ethiopia when he was performing with the genre-defying Ethiopian singer-songwriter Minyeshu. The movement’s kinetic vibrancy is interspersed with moments of reflection, with assorted portamentos (slides between notes) and percussive key-clicks adding to its vitality.

Notes by William A. Everett


As one of Europe’s leading saxophone quartets, the Ferio Saxophone Quartet consistently receives a highly enthusiastic reception from audiences and critics alike. The Quartet was formed at the Royal College of Music in 2012, and performs an extraordinary breadth of repertoire in their highly engaging concert programmes. Accolades and awards have included The Philharmonia/Martin Musical Ensemble Award, the Royal Over-Seas League’s Ensemble Competition prize and selection by both the Tunnell Trust and Park Lane Group. Concert engagements have taken the ensemble to leading festivals and concert halls across the UK, as well as on tour to New Zealand, France and Bermuda, and they can frequently be heard on BBC Radio 3 and other national and international broadcasters.

Their four recordings for Chandos Records have all been met with great acclaim in the press and demonstrate the broad range and flexibility of their instruments, repertoire and collaborations. Flux (2017) traces the saxophone’s history in a programme of original works for saxophone quartet, while Revive (2018) is a set of magnificent Baroque transcriptions. Evoke (2021), with pianist Timothy End, features premiere recordings of three brand new arrangements by Iain Farrington for saxophone quartet and piano, and Revoiced (2022) is a collaboration with vocal ensemble Corvus Consort that explores the magical blend of saxophones and voices.

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