Music: Meridian Saxophone Quartet St John's Smith Square, London

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The Independent Culture
Sax appeal comes in at least four sizes, with a repertoire that's predominantly French. No, we're not being suggestive: just stating the facts of the saxophone quartet. Soprano, alto, tenor and baritone instruments form a powerful, blended sound, implicitly sexy for those with ears to hear, but also a medium for genuine chamber music. That was the impression given by the Meridian Quartet, playing at St John's Smith Square on Monday evening to a small yet highly committed audience. Leave sex to the selling of cars and ice-cream. On offer instead was nothing less than a rich yet unknown musical tradition.

The opening work, a Quatuor de saxophones by Claude Pascal, said it all. Pascal, a name outside the thoughts of most British listeners but a winner of the 1945 Prix de Rome, was a pupil of Aubin and Busser, two more unknown names who yet were seminal figures in the evolution of 20th-century ensemble music for saxophone. As the evening unfolded, with the premiere of another Quatuor by Pierre Lantier, also a Busser pupil and Prix de Rome winner, and works first written for leading groups of the past like the Belgian Saxophone Quartet and the Quatuor Marcel Mule, it was clear that windows on to a whole hidden world of French musical life were being opened.

String quartets to be blowed, not bowed, these pieces were far removed from the Ealing Comedy school of British woodwind writing, yet had manners and lineaments of their own. As if following the dictates of some notional academie, Pascal, Pierre Lantier and Alfred Desenclos paid homage to the ceremonies of sonata form in their first movements, and concluded their essays with frivolous high jinks en rondo. In between, Desenclos, placed a haunting nocturne in blues harmony, and Lantier a chromatically lurching aria and minuet as French as the aroma of absinthe.

Consistently full-textured, these pieces were tests of stamina and balance for the Meridian players, who covered themselves in glory with their sensitive, intense playing. There was more chance for solo work in the Suite sur des themes populaires roumains by the Belgian Jean Absil, with pleasing solos for Tim Payne's alto in two dreamy Andantes, and an obstinate Scherzo that highlighted the splendid timbre of Beverley Calland's baritone and John Cooper's tenor in combination.

But the real leavening was a new work, Tuning In, by British composer Jonathan Dove. From the four corners of the hall the performers assembled on stage, playing fragments of yodelling music that flowed together as a silvery background to an arching melody for Peter Davis's soprano. The model was linguistic: the sequence of mixed emotions in a typical conversation. But the use of space added a genuine dimension, with plenty of fresh air in the scoring, and a ravishing episode where the Meridians, switching to altos only, held the notes of a simple major chord and slowly filled the spaces in between to unfold the second phrase of "Home, Sweet Home".

Inspired writing without a trace of French polish, this sounded like an important new addition to the medium.

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