Rhinegold Photo credit: © MICHAEL ROBERT WILLIAMS

Colin Clarke

REVIVE: a saxophone take on the Baroque

11:28, 5th November 2018

The Ferio Saxophone Quartet is launching its latest album at next week’s Rhinegold LIVE. Colin Clarke spoke to the players to find out more

The Ferio Saxophone Quartet’s disc of Baroque arrangements for saxophone quartet, REVIVE, is gloriously enjoyable. Listen more closely, and the skill of both performers and arrangers is clear, all presented in a state-of-the-art recording. REVIVE certainly warrants investigation: cue an interview, then, with Ferio.

First, how did the quartet come into existence? ‘We met at the Royal College of Music where Huw [Wiggin, soprano sax] and José [Bañuls, tenor sax] were studying for their master’s; and Shevaughan [Beere, baritone sax] and Ellie [McMurray, alto sax] were undergraduates. We formed officially in 2012 through friendship with the aim of having fun.

‘Musically we often visit Kyle Horch, our teacher at RCM, who is masterful with all saxophone repertoire. But mostly we look to colleagues and friends whose expertise will help. For example, we had mentoring from Philharmonia bassoonist Robin O’Neill when preparing for REVIVE.’ And why the name? ‘Ferio is a blacksmith term (Fe being the chemical symbol for iron) which loosely means to mould into shape. We liked the idea of something as strong as a metal being in a malleable, maybe even liquid form.’

The spirit of REVIVE seems to be in keeping with the idea of ‘purity’ as quite a modern idea. In the Baroque era, arrangements of others’ compositions were rife (think of Bach’s arrangements of Vivaldi or Marcello). Pardon the pun, but did Ferio set out to blow new air into these pieces? ‘Absolutely. Our intention was really to adhere as much as possible to original compositional intentions but with the contemporary twist of four saxophones. It is all repertoire that works remarkably well in this ensemble. It has always been necessary to arrange works from other instruments and we are passionate about adding to the quartet canon.’

What is really fascinating is that the Ferio Quartet intends the music to sound as if it could have been originally intended for this instrumental line-up, citing the malleability of the sax, an instrument that melds brass and wind. The variety of sound conjured up, from the call-and-response in the Handel Hornpipe (Water Music), to the purity of Byrd is astonishing. ‘The addition of a more open, wider, clarinet mouthpiece with a wood single reed and a brass body (originally similar to an ophicleide) produces a very flexible tone. Because there isn’t much resistance in the mouthpiece or the reed the sound is naturally quite open which is why it is easy to bend the tone. This means that it is possible to imitate tonal qualities of other instruments through using your own mouth, throat and resonating cavities. The timbral qualities of the saxophone are often paralleled to those of the human voice because they are both so harmonically rich.’

It’s a nice touch that the disc begins with a number some will think they don’t know until they hear it. Announced as Rondeau from Purcell’s Abdelazar, it’s the theme Britten used in Young Person’s Guide. The programme is structured carefully: ‘We really wanted to achieve a balance which would represent what we would perform in a concert setting. We believe that REVIVE’s programme order not only introduces the saxophone quartet sound to many audiences but through these pieces the music is re-invented in a new, refreshing way. We ordered the music depending on individual composers and combined different tempos with different characters and moods.’

The sound of a sax quartet is haunting. There is melancholy, yet there is also a kind of sublime clarity: I found this particularly in the Italian Concerto Andante (where the baritone sax’s bassline works perfectly). ‘There are a number of arrangers who have published the Italian Concerto for saxophone quartet. We have tried numerous of these, but always found that this arrangement works best for the ranges of each instrument. For the Andante movement, Ferio actually rearranged this. In Tochio’s original arrangement, he shared the melody between the soprano and tenor saxophone. We actually found that this created two different voicings, which we wanted to have as one; and with the tonal quality of the tenor being that little bit deeper, it offered a sense of sonority which we thought made the solo line even more beautiful.’

‘Through these pieces the music is re-invented in a new, refreshing way’ - © ROSLARTS
‘Through these pieces the music is re-invented in a new, refreshing way’ – © ROSLARTS

In fact, there are three arrangers: Farrington, Hunck and Tochio. What are the differences between their ways of working with the source material? ‘Farrington managed to bring out the characteristics of individual instruments. For example, the lyrical quality of the soprano in Air which sits apart from the homogenous texture of its siblings, or the melancholic tenor taking the vocal like in Sheep May Safely Graze. Iain really thought about the difficulties which we were going to face as a modern instrument playing Baroque music, and made these arrangements work fantastically well. Hunck and Tochio are more about vertical harmony and so use the homogenous nature of the four family members. The saxophone quartet is unique as it is comprised of four versions of the same instrument which allows us to approach keyboard works.’

Similarly, the third Brandenburg Concerto was originally for strings. ‘During the recording process, and when thinking about the programme order, we felt that the Brandenburg Concerto needed to be a central work. We wanted to record a work of Bach’s which would demonstrate the rich and full sound of a saxophone quartet. The works on the album before the Brandenburg demonstrate the purity, sensitively and colourful sound of the saxophone quartet. These are all shorter preparations for the larger central work, which shows a rich and fuller sound. The Italian Concerto, the only other complete work on the disc, works extremely well at the end, like an encore.’

Moving to Handel – a very different sound world: ‘Handel was the hardest composer for us to approach on the album. We experimented with lots of different changes, and found that sitting physically closer together really transformed this music for us: with such close harmonies as Handel writes, you can listen more keenly to the harmonies.’

In addition to Baroque arrangements, Ferio works with contemporary composers. ‘As the saxophone is a very young instrument, compared to the violin or clarinet, there is limited amount of repertoire available. It is therefore incredibly important to us to add fantastic and testing literature but also to help influence the journey of the ensemble. We love the idea of saxophone quartets in years to come playing the fantastic repertoire that has been written for us such as the Lago, Bowler and also a wonderful piece by Simon Rowland Jones.’

And finally, what’s coming up in performance terms? ‘We are incredibly lucky to have been chosen by Rhinegold and Classical Music magazine to launch this new album, REVIVE, at Rhinegold LIVE. We have lots of concerts lined up for 2019, and are looking forward to bringing this new concept to audiences.’

The Ferio Saxophone Quartet plays Rhinegold LIVE at Conway Hall on 13 November, 7pm. Register for free tickets here

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