Petitgirard’s “States of Mind” for Alto Sax

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PETITGIRARD: États d’âme (States of Mind).+ Solitaire. Le Marathon.* Flaine / +Michel Supéra, a-sax; Balász Kántor, cello; Hungarian Symphony Orch. Budapest; Laurent Petitgirard, cond / Naxos 8.574034

French composer Laurent Petitgirard, born in 1950, is described as an “accessible” modern composer of classical works. I was a bit wary of this description because, in my experience, “accessible” normally equates with Romantic or drippy music, but Petitgirard really does write fascinating pieces.

The principal piece on this album is his saxophone concerto États d’âme or States of Mind for alto sax and orchestra. This way well be the most intelligent use of the saxophone in a purely classical context I have ever heard. The soloist plays lyrical but bitonal lines around which the orchestra swirls in rising and falling figures, shifting in intensity from quiet to roiling and back again. Like many of the old-time concerti you may be used to, what the instrument plays is not always a reflection of what the ensemble plays; it is as if the soloist were giving a soliloquy to a fairly large and somewhat hostile audience that didn’t much like what he had to say. And yet, at the same time, Petitgirard uses contrasting themes in a very creative way, sometimes developing and sometimes juxtaposing them, to create an overall ambience of sound that keeps morphing and shifting as the music goes on.

In the brief liner notes, Petitgirard explains that he has long been “disturbed by the ‘vocal’ dimension of the saxophone,” and thus saw creating this concerto as a natural extension of his thoughts. Both soloist and orchestra certainly explore a certain moodiness in the slow second movement, which contains more purely lyric moments for the orchestra as well as the soloist yet often shifts towards subtly disturbing harmonies. The restlessness one feels in the music comes not from its complete abandonment of tonality, as in the case of so many modern composers, but rather the fact that tonality is but one more place the music “visits” in its course and that it does not visit for long periods of time. When you reach a consonant passage, even if it lasts a minute or two, you know that sooner or later you’re going to have a shift in an unexpected direction.

In the third movement, Petitgirard abandons whatever moments of comfort one felt in the second movement to produce music in a fast tempo, seemingly combining modern classical and Middle Eastern harmonies. A constantly repeating drum beat pattern is also set up, with a few moments of respite, behind the orchestra, and at the 2:25 mark he cleverly combines the solo alto sax with other reed instruments from the ensemble for a few bars. One of the many reasons why I liked this piece was because of its varied approach to composition in addition to the fact that Petitgirard knows how to pull these various elements together to create a cohesive whole.The music slows down around the 5:45 mark to allow the soloist to play a cadenza before resuming its drive towards the finale.

Solitaire, which follows, is described as a cyclical and intimate work, “a progression towards a central idea that appears in the middle of the work.” Petitgirard insists that the title is not descriptive of the music, only of “the composer’s state of mind in front of a blank piece of [score] paper.” The swirling figures in the opening are played by flutes and clarinets against woodblocks, then the music calms down for a bit as the clarinets play a melodic line against odd, soft string figures in the background. As is Petitgirard’s wont, the music then calms down for a bit before little swirls or gestures well up from different sections of the orchestra, almost like the opening of the thunderstorms created by Beethoven and Grofé. You just know something is about to happen, but in this case Petitgirard pulls back from the mounting storm to provide moments of quietude, indeed reducing the forces to an oboe duet with soft woodblocks in the background. Soft string passages are played against what sounds like a drinking glass being struck by a spoon; then the string section alone ruminates for a while—this, indeed, is the very center of the work. My sole complaint is that this central idea is both soft-grained and difficult to grasp as it consists, really, of short gestures built around a limited number of notes, which although changed a little are repeated often enough that one wishes that the composer would get on with it. Petitgirard himself describes this repetition as “obsessive,” and it is. Eventually we move on to other things, yet we keep returning to variations of this string figure.

Le Marathon is a symphonic poem that arose from an opera that Petitgirard never wrote about three men running an Olympic marathon who represent birth, love and death. The idea, we learn, was inspired by a play by Claude Confortès of the same name. Here, after a dolorous opening played by the reeds, we hear swirling string figures that repeat themselves as the rest of the orchestra slowly comes to life in the foreground, playing more rhythmic figures. At times these figures themselves become repetitive, but not for long. There is a strong suggestion of “running” in the music, but since music is not in itself a representational art it is difficult for the listener to discern what, if anything, in the music is supposed to “represent” birth, love or death. Taken on its own merits, however, it is an interesting work that does not get as bogged down in the middle section as Solitaire did. At the same time, I found this work incredibly boring, as little changed in the music from this point on. I hope death won.

The album concludes with another symphonic poem, Flaine. The rather hyperbolic premise of this work is that it “evokes the adventure of the conception and construction of a resort at Haute-Sevole from the dreams of Eric and Sylvie Boisonnas,” an enterprise that interests me even less than picking lint out of my navel. This one opens with what sounds like a contrabassoon playing low, deep grumbles on his instrument while high strings and winds play around it. At about 1:25 faster, scurrying string figures come in, playing around a solo clarinet in ambiguous harmony. At 3:23, the music becomes a bit busier and edgier, relaxes for a while, and then resumes a somewhat energetic pace around the five-minute mark. I suppose this represents the industrious building of the Boisonnas’ exciting, adventurous resort. Apparently building unnecessary resorts does not impact Globals Warmings or Climate Change. After all, it’s adventurous! Where’s your send of adventure, huh?

The promise of an album’s worth of interesting music given by the Saxophone Concerto was, then, not fulfilled by the remaining three works, which I found to be disappointing and pedestrian, in one ear and out the other. What a shame that Petitgirard should be such an uneven composer. Recommended for the opening work only.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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