Jimmy Dorsey, Ornette Coleman, Cannonball Adderley and Paquito D’Rivera all played the alto saxophone in their chosen musical idiom of jazz. But ask me to name a great alto saxophone player working in the classical music field and I would draw a blank. That was until today, when I put The Postcard Sessions (Parma Records 7934) on my CD player and sat back, ready to enjoy its contents.

One hour later I was a converted fan of the extraordinary Harrington/Loewen Duo, a perfect pairing of the saxophonist Allen Harrington and the pianist Laura Loewen.

The instruments that make up the saxophone family – soprano, alto, tenor, baritone – were not invented until the 1840’s, when a Belgian instrument maker, Adolphe Sax, created the first specimen of this single-reed member of the woodwind family. Since then the quality of these has improved and their sound embraced by musicians.

The sweet-toned alto that Allen Harrington plays often sounds something like a large clarinet with brilliance in the upper register, mellowness in the middle of its compass and a full lower range. Harrington maintains a steady vibrato and a flawless intonation that never allows his instrument to wail and wander off-pitch.

Beyond the merely technical, here are two major musical talents at work and at the service of the music. Laura Loewen is the ideal collaborative pianist, one with a firm technique, utterly musical, sensitive, ready to take over when needed and self-effacing when the music calls for it.

The duo makes chamber music of the highest order, whether taking on the romantic lyricism of Robert Schumann’s Drei Romanzen, op. 94, the Argentine religiosity of Astor Piazzolla’s Ave Maria and the River Plate urbanity of his Oblivion, or the quintessentially folksy Six English Folk Studies by Ralph Vaughn Williams – all compositions originally conceived for other instruments and later arranged for alto saxophone.

The other works in the album are original compositions for the instrument and they provide an insight into the expanding repertory for it. The middle movement of Warren Benson’s Concertino for Saxophone is a tranquil setting of a melody in the Aeolian mode that shows saxophonist Allen Harrington at his heartfelt best while also displaying uncanny technical control. The Cinq Danses Exotiques by Jean Francaix take the listener on a lively tour of mid-century Latin America. Jacques Ibert himself arranged his whimsical Histoires (“…for adults who are still children…”) Paule Maurice’s Tableaux de Provence provides the duo with a virtuoso technical tour de force with which to end this delightful CD.

As usual with Parma Records, the packaging is classy, with good notes, bios, and handsome photography. Nate Hunter’s engineering is faithful and immediate in sound clarity.

Rafael de Acha


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