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Classical: Study in sax appeal

MOZART AND the saxophone might seem something of a stretch. We can be absolutely confident that Mozart wrote nothing for this instrument since the saxophone was invented and developed by the Belgian instrument maker, Adolphe Sax, in 1840, 50 years after Mozart's death. So it seems pretty improbable that the London Mozart Players, celebrating their 50th anniversary, should have chosen this particular fact for particular emphasis. But then in recent years there's been no telling where the LMP might stray, certainly not exclusively along the Haydn/Mozart trail established by its founding father, Harry Blech.

The London Mozart Players do not sit on their laurels. Indeed, they don't even sit in London, having opted 10 years ago for an operating base in "corporate" Croydon. So it should come as no surprise that programmes in their 50th anniversary season bear the mark of an enterprising band who have gracefully survived testing times. The management and players are to be heartily congratulated, appearing to be in rude health under the no-nonsense baton of music director Matthias Bamert. And the players even smile while performing.

Wednesday's concert was the first of a pair featuring the saxophone and the astonishing soloist, John Harle. (The second concert took place on Friday). The concert saxophone must rank as an instrument on the endangered species list, if repertoire is much to go by. There is precious little for solo saxophone, even if Ravel's Bolero and Britten's Billy Budd wonderfully feature the instrument in an orchestral setting. So classical saxophonists have much to thank John Harle for, not only in commissioning new pieces for the instrument, but in finding old chestnuts in tucked-away corners. On Wednesday, works by Villa-Lobos and Glazunov were heard; on Friday the LMP Chamber Ensemble with John Harle presented works by Krommer, Francaix and Chick Corea. And there's the rub: there's no shortage of material for saxophone in the jazz world, but players rarely straddle both. Harle is that rare player. Neither Villa-Lobos's Fantasia for Soprano Saxophone and Orchestra, nor Glazunov's Concerto for Saxophone and Strings can be counted as "important" musically. But in the hands of a player of Harle's distinction, any compositional weakness is brushed aside by superlative performance.

And it should be added that the saxophone thrives in the bathroom acoustic of St John's. Not so, alas the scampering passage work of Mozart's "Haffner" Symphony, which began the programme. In this Mozart and Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, Bamert followed brisk tempi and with fast bows and chamber orchestra proportions, the LMP cut a judicious balance between "authentic" and "modern". Only the horns and trumpets seemed underpowered in the Beethoven. A large audience seemed well pleased.

Annette Morreau