This is an exceptional release. Some years ago, Bernard Haitink said, in reference to Jacques Loussier and Ward Swingle’s treatments of Bach, that you can do anything to the man’s music and it still sounds like Bach. Some listeners might approach Andrew Dahlke’s transcription of Bach’s cello suites for saxophone in the same light. However, what we have here is in an entirely different category from Loussier and Swingle. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach wrote that his father “understood to perfection the possibilities of all stringed instruments.” One may say the same of Dahlke’s understanding of the possibilities of the saxophone. His is not an attempt to make the sax sound like a Baroque instrument. Rather, he has contributed music to the modern saxophone’s unaccompanied repertory that is as natural sounding as Anthony Braxton’s solo jazz improvisations. The suitability of the saxophone in taking over the cello’s lines is actually quite stunning. I would argue that the singing quality of the saxophone has at least as much in common with the modern cello’s capacity for legato as the actual Baroque cello Bach knew has. We’ve had the cello suites on lute and guitar, so why not saxophone? It’s true that the sax cannot duplicate the double stops and the three- and four-note chords of the cello, but Dahlke has artfully altered the melodic line at times to convey the substance of these effects. You also get accustomed very quickly to the saxophonist’s breathing where a cellist would just play seamlessly—especially when Dahlke integrates his breathing so effectively into his phrasing. I don’t think we can go as far as to say that this is exactly how Bach would have written for the saxophone if he had it at his disposal, but as a practical musician I believe he would be very pleased with his transcriber’s craftsmanship.
Dahlke has retained the original keys of the suites, while distributing them among four different saxophones. This creates a welcome variety in listening to the set as a whole. In addition to phrasing along with his breaths, Dahlke indulges in the most artful use of rubato. There is nothing sterile or academic about his playing. Nathaniel Rosen has written about rendering these works on the cello that “if a performance develops organically and with natural rhythm, the audience will respond with rapt spiritual attention.” I think listeners will react to Dahlke in the same way. He is a true virtuoso. One of his thank yous in the album’s booklet is for the great jazz saxophonist Dick Oatts. It’s a measure of Dahlke’s success that at times he approaches Oatts’s artistry and facility. His set opens with the Sixth Suite, played on soprano sax. Dahlke’s tone is clear and beautiful, with no hint of Sidney Bechet. He renders the Allemande slowly, with some of the feeling of Charles Ives’s The Unanswered Question. Dahlke takes this suite’s Sarabande, and all the other Sarabandes, a little faster than most cellists, although they sound quite natural. I can’t tell if he does this for interpretive or technical reasons—would the breathing break up the long, elegiac lines most cellists go in for? Dahlke plays the Second Suite on an alto sax that includes a low A—it offers the quality of a vocalise. This suite’s Sarabande sounds rather like Jean-Baptiste Lully. Its first Menuet is a little like haunted house music.
My favorite among Dahlke’s performances is the Third Suite, mainly because I love the pugnacity of the baritone sax. The spiritedness of the Courante invites a comparison with Gerry Mulligan. In the Sarabande, the baritone has a very cello-like expressiveness. Dahlke gives the second Bourrée a sotto voce quality. The sax makes a delectable growl at times in the Gigue. Dahlke returns to the low A alto for the First Suite, where the Allemande sounds like something a Parisian composer in the 1920s might have written. Dahlke plays the Courante with the flair of a street musician. In the Menuets, his sax almost sounds like a clarinet. The Gigue reminds me a little of a French folk song. Dahlke performs the Fifth Suite on the tenor sax. The Prelude’s two sections are beautifully proportioned in his interpretation; the second section swings a little like Stan Getz. The Courante possesses an angularity as if played on the bassoon. The Second Gavotte is reminiscent of the final movement of Chopin’s “Funeral March” Sonata. With the Fourth Suite, Dahlke ends his program as he began it, on the soprano sax. The Prelude is unusually meditative, akin to chant. Dahlke’s quick tempo for the Allemande gives it a resemblance to an Irish reel. Strong accents in the Courante produce a reading of unusual exuberance. The Gigue makes you want to get up and dance.
The sound engineering is outstanding, capturing the instruments realistically in a mildly reverberant space. If you are looking for these works on the modern cello, I would recommend the sets by Alexander Rudin, Ralph Kirshbaum, and Robert Cohen. Anner Bylsma’s 1979 period instrument account is worth having; I have not heard his digital remake. Both Rudin and Bylsma play the Sixth Suite on the smaller, five-string cello it was written for. Dahlke’s transcription of the suites offers a world of expression to saxophonists that they only may have dreamed of having before. This is a major addition to the repertoire. And, as Dahlke’s recording demonstrates, it can make for exquisite Bach. Dave Saemann
This article originally appeared in Issue 39:4 (Mar/Apr 2016) of Fanfare Magazine.