The notion of performing Baroque music on the saxophone might seem an anathema to many, especially purists. To have created arrangements of such iconic works as the six Cello Suites by Bach would seem to have compounded the problem, leaving a recording to be the purview of saxophonists alone, perhaps with multiple genuflections by others against such audacity. In other arrangements, the usual argument goes something like, “if Bach [substitute any other 17th or 18th century composer at will] had known the saxophone, he would have used it.” This recording, using a variety of instruments ranging from the soprano to the baritone sax, however, does not go down this specious critical path, instead offering up all six suites in arrangements that seek to demonstrate the adaptability of this newer instrument family to the work. The only paean to the normal view of “mainstream circles of music” (as the brief cover notes explain) is an off-hand statement that, despite “significant strides as a viable instrument within the tradition of Western European art music,” the “acceptance” remains “at a distance.” To be sure, this must be set against the use of the saxophone by major composers such as Ravel and Prokofiev (not to mention Hindemith) during the 20th century “Classics,” as well as the strides made by figures such as Sigurd Rascher, who regularly programmed adaptations of earlier pre-Adolph Sax works. Indeed, Andrew Dahlke makes a point of noting that his focus with the recording is not on trying once more to find a method of inserting the saxophone into the canon of earlier music, but rather to explore how such a work might be re-created, replete with resolving some of the musical-technical issues inherent in such an arrangement. Is so doing, he has created two discs that not only provide an excellent example of how Bach ought to be arranged, but also give an interesting and provocative (not to mention musically-innovative) perspective on these oft-recorded works.
The difficulty with adapting these suites is that Bach originally intended that this be three-four voices playable by a single instrument able to do double- and triple-stops. Dahlke overcomes this by spacing the parts out slightly, which makes the various voices stand out. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the First Suite’s Prelude, which requires such techniques as bariolage. The alto sax is the instrument of choice and he achieves the cello technique of the latter by alternative fingerings that allow for a slight change of timbre. The Prelude of the Fifth Suite, however, is much broader in terms of range and depth. Here, Dahlke uses a tenor sax, which has the more resonant lower register that Bach needs for the often scattered de facto bass line. A registral variation is chosen for the prelude to the E♭ Suite (No. 4), where the higher tones give the lines a nice clarity. This is provided by the rather more shrill tones of the soprano sax, while in the Third Suite (in C Major, the neutral key) a baritone reaches the rising and falling lines that Bach places into the matrix of the opening. Beyond these fantasia-like beginnings lie the same sort of series of stylized dances, alternating fast and slow. Here, Dahlke allows for his instruments to become more playful. In the well-known Bourée of the C-Major Suite, the baritone sax offers a rather resonant option, where Dahlke outlines the various registral changes with some adroit phrasing that distinguish between theme and musical colophon. In the lively Courante of the Second Suite, the alto sax scurries through the line, rushing the de facto inner parts to achieve a fast-paced race. In the Gigue of the Sixth Suite, the soprano sax outlines the broken chords with appoggiaturas, grace notes that are inserted a short antecedents.
The idea of performing all suites on a saxophone may seem an exercise in musical serendipity, and, given Dahlke’s expert and nicely-phrased playing, one can appreciate this arrangement. It brings out Bach’s complex musical content, and to my ears is appealing due to its nice adaptability. It will not replace the cello, but that is not its intent. Instead, it shows that the intricacies of Baroque music are not too distant for a more contemporary instrument such as the saxophone to be able to encompass them. This will be a model for saxophone players, but others, given an open mind, will find much to commend in these two discs. Bertil van Boer
This article originally appeared in Issue 39:4 (Mar/Apr 2016) of Fanfare Magazine.