Ingolf Dahl: Concerto for Alto Saxophone
Ingolf Dah’s Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Wind Orchestra was composed in 1948, after the German composer received a letter of request from virtuoso saxophonist, Sigurd Rascher. Dahl quickly settled on using a wind orchestra instead of a traditional orchestra for the accompaniment commenting that “Somebody has to write the big [wind orchestra] pieces, the symphonic works, if the medium is to be elevated.”
Originally conceived as a one-movement fantasy work, Dahl soon edited and expanded the concerto into a three-movement concerto. Completed in 1949, the concerto premiered in May of that year with Rascher as the soloist and the University of Illinois Concert Band. Dahl was at the premiere of the work, and although the piece is certainly challenging for the soloist, the composer thought that the extensive altissimo range was something that Rascher could only reach. Dahl added in variations for the difficult altissimo parts so that the soloist part could be attempted by more saxophonists.
The concerto was a big hit with both critics, audiences and some of Dahl’s contemporaries. Igor Stravinsky championed the piece, saying it was masterfully constructed and bought him to tears. Some of the most famous saxophonists have performed this work with some of the world’s top wind orchestras and the concert remains as one of Dahl’s namesakes.
Set into three stand-alone movements, the Concerto for Alto Saxophone takes you on a whirlwind tour of the instrument.
Movement I – Recitative
The brash opening movement of the concerto begins with dissonance running through the veins of the ensemble. After a triumphant fanfare sequence led by the brass and percussion, the saxophone enters. The mysterious character of the piece begins as the soloist’s sultry lines interweave with the wind orchestra. The fast key work and the long sustained notes keeps the listener well and truly on their toes. The angular melodies certainly show some inspiration from both Stravinsky and the jazz scene at the time. The dichotomy between melancholy and quite aggressive playing is a highlight of this opening movement.
Movement II – Adagio Passacaglia
The melancholy opening of the second movement is played directly after finishing the first movement. The muted brass adds a tinny effect to the sound, which bounces off the alto saxophone’s unique timbre. The mystery remains in the character of this movement, however it is presented in a different way here. Dahl’s use of dissonance is passionate in its presentation, with the wind orchestra bursting into life to support the soloist during the central section. This movement finishes quietly.
Movement III – Rondo
Bursting with energy, the carefree rondo finale gives each and every part in the orchestra a time to shine alongside the soloist. Unlike the other two movements, the finale is jubilant and comedic in character, with the mysterious undertones completely gone. Dahl’s colourful orchestrations shine through which soon leads to a dynamic and devilish saxophone cadenza. Here the soloist uses the altissimo range – which Dahl edited due to how difficult it was originally. A final flourish from the soloist in its upper register completes this legendary concerto off.
Ingolf Dahl’s Concerto for Alto Saxophone remains one of his most treasured works. Not for the faint-hearted, this binary form concerto pushes the boundaries to show the unchallenged capabilities of an often underused instrument.
Ⓒ Alex Burns
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