Nobuya Sugawa plays Honda, Yoshimatsu, Ibert & Larsson

Nobuya Sugawa (saxophone); BBC Philharmonic/Yutaka Sado (Chandos CHAN10466)

1 August 2008 4 stars

Nobuya Sugawa plays Honda, Yoshimatsu, Ibert & Larsson The first work on this superb new disc of saxophone concertos is Takashi Yoshimatsu's Albireo Mode (2004-5). Written for Nobuya Sugawa, the featured artist on this release, it is a stylistically diverse composition that takes in references to everything from free jazz, to Japanese traditional music, to minimalism, to Hollywood soundtracks; yet it never strays away from its insistence on a kind of static, contemplative calm.

Written in two movements, Yoshimatsu's work is an almost entirely effective statement of the essential enigma of sound. With the exception of the excessive use of the bell-tree, the composer displays a fine ear for shimmering orchestral colour creatively spread across piano, metallic percussion and of course the soloist's soprano saxophone, and the conductor, Yutaka Sado, produces a delicate and timbrally responsive performance. With the exception of some minor mistakes (for example the wrong note given on the celesta in its intimate and exposed exchange with the piano at the end of the first movement), the players of the BBC Philharmonic are on impressive form. The generally elegiac second movement is particularly moving, and the impression I was left with whilst listening of a more adventurous, more eclectic and more vital Sketches of Spain (with added Albert Ayler-esque squawks in the cadenza) speaks of the high accomplishments of all involved. Sugawa's performance is revelatory- his utterly flexible technique means he moves from the unstable, sliding pitches required at times in the first movement, to the post-bop stylings that pop-up in the second (for example) with extraordinary ease. Albireo Mode is hardly original, but it certainly beguiles.

The second item on the disc is Toshiyuki Honda's Concerto du vent, another work written recently and for the present soloist. It has, however, a very different character to its predecessor. Instead of Eastern postmodernism, the work is a rather straightforward homage to the kind of jazz-infused orchestral writing found in pieces like Gershwin's An American in Paris, in various Golden Age musicals (and beyond), and on numerous film soundtracks from the forties or fifties onwards. Like Gershwin, Honda possesses a great melodic ability, and his very sweet palette means the work comes across as humbly and quite beautifully lyrical.

In lesser hands perhaps things could appear glib, but the performers on this recording stay comfortably on the right side of the sensibility. Their interpretations are always fluid, delicate, sensitive to the idiom, and expressive. The two outer movements are performed with great alacrity, especially the first, which comes across as something Stravinsky might have written in the twenties had he been much less severe. The frequent detours into swooning expressiveness in the otherwise restive finale make for an impressive contrast and Sugawa, now on alto, produces playing of broad poignancy in the slow movement (with phrases that often suggest the repeated motif of Herrmann's score to Taxi Driver). The conductor ensures likewise that a striking suppleness enters the performance in that section, along with indulgent, but effective, degrees of vibrato and rubato. The soloist is forthright and capable elsewhere, and his interactions with the orchestra are always productive. Sugawa's cadenza towards the end of the work is impressive insofar as it is technically dense and skilfully given, but with the exception of the precipitous slide into the final tutti chord, it makes for a tonally incongruous conclusion.

The final two works on the disc are much more familiar, and as such provide more of a chance for the performers to cut loose and revel in the exuberant scores that confront them. Jacques Ibert's Concertino de camera (1935) is an enjoyable piece that has plenty of opportunity for the soloist and ensemble to trot along rowdily, without much consequence. The work does contain a slow movement with all the tender depth of Ravel's Piano Concerto in G-major, and the performance of it is affecting and warm. The attaca move into the finale is somewhat gauche though, but the sheer joy with which each of the 12 instrumentalists take part in that finale's effusive conversation more than makes up for any previous lapses; every performer infuses the short closing movement with an exciting momentum that almost succeeds in overcoming the slightness of the material.

Lars-Erik Larsson's Concerto for Saxophone and String Orchestra (1934) is more limited in scope than the other works on the disc, it being more homogenous in ensemble and more rigidly neoclassical in idea and form, but the economy of its material and the invention of the execution mean that it is a notable work still. The quite expansive first movement is given a rigorous and intelligent reading in which the syntactical punctuation is always proper and prevailing, and Sado brings a real sense of frothy substance to the finale. Sugawa, as ever, is on persuasive form, with his intricate altissimo in the first movement providing a highpoint of the disc. On the whole then very much a release of two distinct halves, each of which in their own way provide plenty to consider and enjoy.

By Stephen Graham