Photo Credit: Nathan Russel
CD: Bel Coure Quartet
TITLE: Splashing the Canvas
Label: Self Produced
Cover design: Christopher David Ryan
REVIEWED BY: Dr. Christopher Barrick
Dr. Christopher Barrick is the James and Ann Bumpass Distinguished Chair of Music and head of the Department of Music at the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith. An active saxophonist, he holds degrees from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (DMA), the University of Tennessee (MM), and Indiana University of Pennsylvania (BA, BS). Barrick is an endorsing artist for Conn-Selmer and performs on Selmer Paris saxophones.
"Splashing the Canvas"by Dr. Christopher Barrick
One of the dynamic new saxophone quartets on today’s scene, the Bel Cuore Quartet, isn’t that new at all. Founded in 2009 during their graduate studies at the University of Texas at Austin, this diverse group of saxophonists shares a common vision for their ensemble’s sound. While I’ve been aware of their work for some time, I first had the opportunity to hear them live in Lubbock, Texas at the 2016 Biennial Conference of the North American Saxophone Alliance. It was an inspiring performance — including some of the repertoire heard here — and I’ve been eagerly awaiting their debut recording ever since.
Saxophonists Rami El-Farrah (soprano), Sunil Gadgil (alto), Spencer Nielsen (tenor), and Michael Hertel (baritone) have traveled from their native Texas to perform across the United States and abroad, presenting concerts featuring new music, standard repertoire, and transcriptions. While members of Bel Cuore have previously been featured on commercial recordings on the Naxos, Mark Masters, and Longhorn labels, in 2017 they released their debut recording as a quartet, Splashing the Canvas. Bel Cuore’s versatility is on display here, as they traverse transcriptions by Bach and Ravel, Eugene Bozza’s quartet standard, Andante et Scherzo, plus newer works by Jennifer Higdon and Steven Snowden.
The CD opens with Christoph Enzel’s arrangement of Maurice Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin. The virtuosic lines passing seamlessly from El-Farrah’s soprano to Gadgil’s alto in the first movement are an exciting opening to the recording. After a more lyrical and dancelike second movement, Forlane, the Menuet showcases the ensemble’s balance, blend, and phrasing. The piece ends with the energetic Rigaudon, a vehicle for lively articulation, which the quartet matches skillfully.
Splashing the Canvas includes two works by emerging American composer Steven Snowden: Speed Studies and Take This Hammer. Speed Studies begins slowly and softly, with the piquant chordal lyricism giving way to energetic ostinatos and ensemble interplay through shifting meters. Both of the Snowden works employ key clicks, pops, slap tongue, and other tonal effects that Bel Cuore presents with aplomb. Take This Hammer is based upon prison work songs recorded by Alan and John Lomax at The Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola in the 1930s. It showcases the entire quartet, but especially the lyrical baritone playing. Marked dissonances including trumpeted minor seconds announce the coming of this exciting work's dramatic conclusion. Voiced for two tenor and two baritone saxophones, Take This Hammer is a rousing new work worth a look by serious saxophone quartets.
Short Stories by Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer Jennifer Higdon is a terrific addition to Splashing the Canvas. Cast in six movements, Short Stories is a true tour de force for the ensemble. Specific highlights include El-Farrah’s lyrical soprano opening to Summer’s Eve, the striking ensemble interplay of Chase, and Higdon’s beautiful, crunching harmonies voiced low with Hertel’s baritone in the lead on Coyote Nights. And of course, be sure to check out the Bel Cuore Quartet’s stirring performance of the CD’s title movement, Splashing the Canvas – a truly impressive selection masterfully performed here.
The ensemble makes a bold statement in Eugene Bozza’s Andante et Scherzo, as a work as standard as this is an easy point comparison to other professional quartets. Bel Cuore’s dark, rich tones provide a unique resonance to their interpretation of this piece. From the opening lines of Nielsen’s tenor, the Andante is exquisitely expressive – a true palate of the group’s rich vibrato. While some might find their dry articulations in the Scherzo to be too short, I rather enjoy the clarity of their tonguing. The ensemble performance is tight and the lines always have energy and direction in this movement. In all, Bel Cuore presents a fine interpretation of Bozza’s classic work.
Splashing the Canvas ends with a 13+ minute performance of J.S. Bach’s Chaconne, arranged by Andrew Charlton and edited by Gary Scudder. Bel Cuore masterfully performs this epic chamber work that tests both the ensemble’s lyrical and technical sides. The melodic voice always comes to the fore, despite Bach’s complex contrapuntal accompaniments. It’s clear that the quartet has performed this piece frequently as their transitions are well rehearsed and seamless, all the way to the ominous final unison.
In sum, the Bel Cuore Quartet’s lyricism, technical precision, and overall musicianship are on constant display throughout their strong debut recording, Splashing the Canvas. Their impressive presentation of a wide variety of repertoire should rank them amongst the leading saxophone quartets on the scene today. We are blessed to have a large number of elite saxophone chamber groups to listen to, but saxophonists should consider adding the Bel Cuore Quartet to their playlist.