As Andrew Dahlke suggests in his booklet note, the purpose of these releases is not to introduce listeners to Bach’s cello suites, but to introduce or remind listeners to what saxophones are capable of. Dahlke plays four different ones on this pair of releases. These are a baritone saxophone (Suite No. 3), a tenor saxophone (No. 5), a low A alto saxophone (Nos. 1 and 2), and a soprano saxophone (Nos. 4 and 6). I have listed the suites in the order in which they are programmed deliberately, because that reveals an almost certainly intentional pattern: Dahlke’s cycle begins with the highest instrument, progresses to the lowest one, and returns to the highest one at its end. It’s like an inverted bell curve. (On the other hand, maybe I’ve been running too many statistics at work lately.) It should be noted that Dahlke plays all six suites in their original keys. His performance edition has been published by Ardmus Publishing.
Dahlke also states that these transcriptions were “largely inspired by and created in reference to” Rostropovich’s recordings of these works. I must confess I wouldn’t have guessed this simply from listening to them. There are things a cello can do that a saxophone cannot, obviously, and Dahlke acknowledges them in his note. A saxophone can play only one note at a time unless the second note is an overtone, so that necessitates some adaptations. Also, although both cellists and saxophonists are obligated to take in oxygen, the former can do so without breaking the musical line, while the latter sometimes must. Thus, in the Prelude to Suite No. 1 (for example), Dahlke inserts pauses one would not expect in a cello performance. (I relistened to Rostropovich’s EMI recording to make sure that he didn’t do the same thing! I’ll also note that Rostropovich plays that movement in just under two minutes, whereas Dahlke plays it in 2:27. Thus, these recordings are not a slavish imitation of Rostropovich.)
Dahlke’s published performance edition “also includes a copy of the music without technical and expressive markings so that the performer can experiment with writing his or her own interpretation of the music.” Clearly, he is fine with future saxophonists not slavishly imitating him! Dahlke mentions the music’s improvisatory qualities, which could lead to the same performer playing the music two different ways on two different occasions. What is on the CDs is frozen in time, obviously, but one senses Dahlke’s open-mindedness nevertheless. These alert readings are emotionally and rhythmically vibrant, dwelling within the spirit of the dance.
Dahlke teaches saxophone at the University of Northern Colorado, and has a long résumé as both a jazz and classical musician. One senses that he took on this project not only for his own professional and personal enjoyment, but also to broaden the breadth of the play-space available to current and future saxophonists. For cellists, Bach’s suites are a kind of spiritual and technical proving ground, and Dahlke’s new arrangements might do the same for fellow sax players. The old saying that Bach’s music sounds good on almost any instrument you play it on holds true in these expert and enjoyable recordings. Do you know a saxophonist? Are you passionate about these works? If so, then you have at least one or two good reasons to explore these releases. Raymond Tuttle
This article originally appeared in Issue 39:4 (Mar/Apr 2016) of Fanfare Magazine.