Solas - Gerard McChrystal (saxophones) Christian Wilson (organ): CD

This review was published on: September 27th 2020

Gerard McChrystal (sopranino, soprano and alto saxophones)
Christian Wilson (organ)
First Hand Records

An overlooked casualty of the streaming era is the CD booklet, or liner notes. Some people like to let music speak for itself, but I’ve always felt a little context and the odd factual nugget can help enhance the listening experience.

Take this disc, a collection of works for saxophone and organ ranging from baroque arrangements to original contemporary works. In the liner notes, saxophonist Gerard McChrystal explains that Solas (Gaelic for light) is the result of a homemade pesto he made for the late clarinettist Alan Hacker. McChrystal took a few clarinet lessons with Hacker at the Royal Northern College of Music in the 1980s and met him again when they were both teaching at a summer school in 2010. Hacker told McChrystal about a sopranino saxophone he wanted him to try, but only in exchange for some of the saxophonist’s beloved homemade pesto. A few weeks later, the deal was done. ‘No one else has made it sound like that, so you should have it,’ Hacker said.

Ten years later, McChrystal’s new disc features three arrangements of baroque works for the sopranino, plus a multi-tracked arrangement of Handel’s aria Eternal Source of light Divine for soprano and sopranino saxophones, the latter
assuming the role of obbligato trumpet.

Rarely seen outside sax choirs, the sopranino has found a fine torchbearer in Derry-born McChrystal. There is no better case in point than the opening two notes of the disc: a simple upbeat to a high note that sings so exquisitely – with no sense of the strain or ‘bite’ you often hear with higher-pitched instruments – that it immediately erases any thought of the sopranino as a mere novelty instrument.

Eight out of ten works on this disc have been arranged by McChrystal and his duo partner on the CD, the concert organist Christian Wilson, while an arrangement of Barbara Thompson’s ‘Green’ – the fourth movement of her saxophone quartet Darkness into Light – for soprano sax and organ comes from the composer herself. The original’s solo melodic lines and soft, gently pulsating blanket of sound underneath are perfectly suited to the organ’s softer registers.

The balance between saxophone and organ is outstanding throughout and must have been difficult to achieve in the church acoustic with an instrument emitting sound from varying-sized pipes. Recorded at the Chapel Royal at The Tower of London, a photo of the recording session in the CD booklet shows both players on ground level, with McChrystal stood a few feet behind Wilson, presumably in sight line of the organ’s rear-view mirror.

As a fan of bold, all-stops-out organ playing, I was delighted by the inclusion of James Whitbourn’s A Brief Story of Peter Abelard. Much of the rest of the disc features – as is stylistically appropriate – softer organ registers, so it was great to hear both players have a chance to let rip on this eight-minute exploration on the life of the medieval French philosopher, poet and musician. Inspired by the piece, I’ve since discovered Whitbourn’s fantastic Requiem anticorum for soprano sax, choir and organ; an excellent recording featuring saxophonist Jeremy Powell and Westminster Williamson Voices is available on Naxos.

Underpinning all these talking points, crammed into a running time of 53 minutes, is McChrystal’s impeccable technical control and intonation on all three saxophones, particularly the volatile sopranino.

There are many aspects to this disc: an exploration into the sound world of sax and organ, validation of the saxophone’s ability to interpret baroque music, an essay into the versatility of the sopranino, or a window to new repertoire and further listening. Whichever way you look at it, this is a valuable contribution to the recorded saxophone catalogue. Amazing what can come from a jar of pesto!

Michael Pearce

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The Clarinet and Saxophone Society of Great Britain is a company limited by guarantee registered in England No. 3010228, whose registered office is at Flat 51, Parkview Apartments, 122 Chrisp Street, London, E14 6ET. Email: membership(@) Tel: 01642 769 558

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