Bornkamp’s Saxophone Recital Prompts Mixed Feelings

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Combelle, Rosenthal, Schulhoff, Hindemith: Arno Bornkamp (alto saxophone, baritone saxophone), Catherine Milledge (piano) Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff. 17.3.2017. (GPu)

Arno Bornkamp

Francois Combelle – Esquisse for alto saxophone and piano

Manuel Rosenthal – Cadence et Stomp for alto saxophone and piano (1929)

Erwin Schulhoff – Hot Sonate for alto saxophone and piano (1930)

Paul Hindemith – Sonata Op.11, No. 4 (1919)

Under the title ‘Cabaret’, the distinguished Dutch saxophonist Arno Bornkamp, accompanied by Welsh pianist Catherine Milledge, presented an entertaining lunchtime concert, the programme illustrative of some of the ways in which European composers responded to the sounds and idioms of jazz in the first thirty years of the 20th century.

Of course, these composers’ access to ‘real’ jazz, even in Europe’s great capitals, was partial, imperfect and haphazard. Much of what they heard was already more ‘jazz-influenced’ than jazz per se. In most of the pieces played by Bornkamp, jazz was one of the ‘flavours’ in the music, rather than an essential shaping spirit.

That was particularly true of Combelle’s Esquisse (significantly, the title of this piece, unlike the ‘Stomp’ of Rosenthal’s title or the ‘Hot’ of Schulhoff’s, makes no allusion to jazz – ‘esquisse’ meaning simply ‘sketch’). Like some other works by Combelle which I have heard, this Esquisse is essentially ‘light music’, owing as much or more to the waltz as it does to jazz. In Bornkamp’s performance, a good deal of rubato was employed, though his saxophone tone was essentially classical, rather than ‘hot’, save in a few phrases. Combelle was a significant figure in the saxophone’s history, being a featured soloist with band of the Republican Guard for some years (being succeeded in that post by Marcel Mule), as well as an instrument-tester with the famous Parisian company of Henri Selmer. His son, Alix Combelle (1912-1978) became the best-known tenor saxophonist on the Parisian jazz scene in the 1930s, working and recording with groups led by Django Reinhardt and by visiting American musicians such as Benny Carter, Lionel Hampton, Bill Coleman, Buck Clayton and Coleman Hawkins. Combelle père, for obvious chronological reasons, absorbed rather less of the language of jazz than Combelle fils did.

The second piece played  listed as ‘Cadence and Stomp’ by Manuel Rosenthal is the second of the two movements which make up Rosenthal’s Saxophone-Marmalade. Like the first movement ‘Blues’, the jazz qualities of ‘Cadence et stomp’ largely reside in some flattened ‘blue’ notes and a certain ‘dirtiness’ of saxophone sound in some passages. The swoop in the promised saxophone cadenza is reminiscent of the clarinet glissando at the opening of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue; the cadenza, indeed, is particularly striking (and was especially well played). The ensuing ‘Stomp’ is perhaps rather too polite to merit that term, though Bornkamp’s playing here was impressive in its variation of colour and tone. Catherine Milledge’s work at the piano was idiomatic and sympathetic, as it was throughout the concert.

With the music of Erwin Schulhoff we left Paris behind. The Jewish Schulhoff was born in Prague, and after spending time in Vienna and Germany from about 1906/7 until the late twenties, he returned to the city of his birth, where he taught and also worked as a pianist, playing both jazz and ‘modern’ classical music. He was later imprisoned by the Nazis and died (of tuberculosis officially) in the Wűlzburg concentration camp in Bavaria.

Of the composers represented on this programme, Schulhoff had the best and most intimate knowledge of jazz, as well as a comprehensive classical training and through the four movements of his Hot Sonate (lasting some 15 minutes in all) the composer’s sure-footed competence in both musical idioms is everywhere evident. He puts his jazz appropriations to creative use far more extensively, and with far more insight, than either Combelle or Rosenthal. I found this the most satisfying work in the concert, its musical intelligence and sensitivity being consistently impressive and bringing out the best in the two performers. Some of the things Schulhoff does perhaps owe more to the ‘novelty’ ragtime of the day than to what now seems to us the more significant jazz of the time, but he makes such ‘borrowings’ more than merely gimmicky, and the blues phrasing as he uses is invested with far more emotional weight than was common in European borrowings from the blues in the first decades of the last century. This is, quite simply, a substantial composition by a notably (and creatively) eclectic composer – and it got a performance of the quality it deserves (and needs). There is, incidentally, a good recording of the work by Arno Bornkamp on Metropolis Berlin 1925-1933 (Ottavo 100386), with pianist Ivo Janssen.

In these first three works Bornkamp has played his alto sax. For the final work he switched to baritone sax and, for the first time in the concert, to a work not actually written for the saxophone. Hindemith’s opus 11 sonatas of 1919 were all written for string instruments – Nos. 1 and 2 for violin and piano, No.3 for cello and piano, No. 5 for unaccompanied viola and No.4 for viola and piano. It was No.4 that Bornkamp and Milledge played in a transcription which I assume to have been prepared by Bornkamp himself (no one else being credited in the programme). Hindemith’s writing here seems to be influenced far more by Brahms and perhaps by Debussy than by jazz or ‘cabaret’ music. I was therefore puzzled as to quite how the work fitted into the larger scheme of the concert. The playing of both musicians was wholly exemplary, but I found the transcription disappointing. Hindemith was probably the finest composer of music for the viola in the twentieth century (he played the instrument himself in preference to the violin). I happened, by chance, to have listened to a recorded performance of this sonata the day before the concert; the writing for the viola so perfectly exploits the sound world of the instrument that hearing that same music played on the baritone saxophone, however well, could not help but make me aware of what had been lost. The balance between the two instruments is also badly affected, given the saxophones much greater power than the viola. So, for all the skill of Bornkamp and Milledge, my feelings were largely negative, conscious as I was of what had been lost. (I, at least, would have preferred to hear Hindemith’s 1943 sonata for alto saxophone and piano.)

So, a mixed experience: the work by Combelle was fun, but decidedly lightweight; that by Rosenthal was more accomplished but still rather superficial; Schuloff’s Hot Sonate, on the other hand is an outstanding work and was very sympathetically interpreted, while the Hindemith sonata lost rather too much of its essential nature in the process of transcription.  What was not in doubt, was the considerable musicianship of Arno Bornkamp and, indeed, of Catherine Milledge, who, I imagine, must have had to prepare quite a lot of music with which she was previously unfamiliar so as to do such a good job as accompanist.

Glyn Pursglove

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