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Feb 9

Dublin Concert Review
February 9, 2008

Amstel Quartet
Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin

Sweelinck (arr. Apswoude) - Chromatic Fantasy
Ian Wilson – Ghosts
Glazunov - Quartet Op 109

The four saxophonists of the 10-year-old Amstel Quartet are cool-looking young fellows, chicly attired in the one-time unthinkable combination of black and chocolate. Just add shades and you've got guys ready to play a club, not an art gallery at midday.
It's remarkable, then, that, despite this look, their sound never once evoked the jazz and soul world’s wit which the saxophone is more customarily identified.
In fact, in the quartet's own arrangement of a chromatic fantasy for organ by their 16th-century Dutch compatriot, Sweelinck, they conjured an early music edge to their sound that invoked the names of defunct instruments such as shawms and sackbuts.
I have heard a great many arrangements for unlikely combinations of well-known music, including both the successful - such as the version for four cellos by Arun Rao of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody and unsuccessful, such as the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet’s bland take on one of the Brandenburg Concertos.
Whether good or bad, I'm nearly always conscious that it's an arrangement: how clever it is, how fresh the perspective.
But with the Amstel's Sweelinck I practically forgot. The quartet played upon the kinship through wind of the baroque organ and the saxophone, and the music consequently remained simply music, not an imitation.
Aiding this perception was an illusion, namely that the quartet's exquisitely shaped and utterly unanimous phrasing was somehow co-coordinated by one brain - as it would have been on the organ - rather than negotiated by four.
This impression was also strong in Glazunov's 1932 Saxophone Quartet, especially in the central theme and variations, which feature each of the different instruments in turn.
Glazunov exploited their colours and characters with deep insight. In this quality, he was matched and I think surpassed by Irish composer Ian Wilson in his Ghosts, written in 2006 for the Amstel Quartet who, in a spoken introduction, paid a warm tribute to the Belfast man.
The first of two movements is driven by intense fanfares whose urgency makes them more like alarms.
The slow second movement contains languid echoes of these alarms, out of which grows the nebulous atmosphere in which the eponymous ghosts make their fleeting, chilling (and not "spooky") presence felt, with the eerie voices of multiphonics coming into play.
This is captivating, beautifully crafted music which the Amstel performed around the world prior to giving this, the Irish premiere.

Irish audiences have a second chance to hear it when the Amstel Quartet plays at the Aura Maxima of NUI Galway at 8pm tonight.