Not really sure what to expect from a group made up entirely of saxophones, I braved the Nor'easter and wandered down to Barbes Classical last night to catch Amsterdam's Amstel Quartet, two days shy of their Carnegie Hall debut. What and I and about a dozen others discovered was a thoroughly accomplished ensemble, playing with a polished, restrained tone - a far cry from the wild abandon of the jazz musicians who usually inhabit these instruments. A scan of the Amstel's well-designed website reveals a remarkably deep and diverse repertoire, including everything from 16th century Dutch composer Jan Sweelinck, to such modern masters as Ligeti, Glass and Gubaidulina.
The first piece I heard was Alexander Glazunov's Saxophone Quartet, written late in the famed Russian composer's life after he'd moved to Paris and discovered the harmonic possibilities of the instrument, particularly the combination of soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxes. According to Amstel, it is considered the masterpiece of the repertoire, sprawling over three movements of considerable range and complexity. Impressively, they played from memory, signaling each other with silent gestures.
Before playing Sweelinck's Toccata in A, tenor Bas Apswoude asked us if we knew the names of any other Dutch composers.
"Other than Tiesto," he said.
A far cry from Trance music, the Toccata - which, like Bach's Art of the Fugue wasn't scored for any particular instruments - resonated like a Baroque organ, and it wasn't hard to picture the saxes as pipes in an old wooden choir loft.
They ended with transporting transcriptions of Michael Nyman (from The Piano) and Philip Glass (his String Quartet No. 3, Mishima.) Both had a hypnotic beauty, even though I've heard each of them countless times on CD.
As I mentioned earlier, the Amstel will be performing one final concert at Weill Recital Hall tomorrow night before returning home to Amsterdam. Tickets are $20. They return in August and October, dates TBD.