Friday, March 9, 2018

Cecil Leeson, Classical Saxophonist

The three major pioneer virtuosi of the classical saxophone in the early 20th century were Marcel Mule in France, Sigurd Rascher in Germany and Denmark (and later in the U.S.), and Cecil Leeson, who was born on the plains of North Dakota in 1902. Although Leeson taught at Northwestern and Ball State Universities later in his career, his influence as a teacher was not widespread; his importance lies in his groundbreaking concertizing and recording, the commissioning of important works for saxophone, and as a historian of the instrument. Leeson was the first saxophone recitalist at Town Hall in New York (in 1937), and Paul Creston's very important Suite, Sonata, and Concerto for alto saxophone were all written for Leeson. And he was arguably the first American to record "serious" classical saxophone music - depending on how one defines those terms, of course. Leeson died in 1989.

Here is a three-record album of 12" 78s on American Decca, with Leeson and pianist Josef Wagner playing Edvard Moritz's Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano, op. 96, composed for Leeson in 1939. Although the album bears a 1941 copyright date, it was probably recorded in 1940; it appears in Decca's 1941 catalog, which "contains all records released to December 1, 1940." My copy is presumably from later in the 1940s; the first disc uses an early-1940s label style, but the other two records have labels of a variety that Decca introduced in 1946. (It was not unusual for record companies to use up remaining stock of discontinued labels, even if that meant that records in an album set had different labels, or even if two sides of a record had different label styles.)

Moritz (1891-1974) found himself in the unenviable position of being a prominent Jewish musician and composer in Hitler's Germany, so he emigrated to the United States in 1937. He composed and taught in New York City for the rest of his life; pop/jazz pianist and singer Bobby Scott was one of his students.

As a saxophonist, I find Leeson's performance more engaging that Moritz's composition, which is accomplished without being particularly original or interesting. The phrase that came to my mind when I first listened was, "This is Brahms plus whole-tone scales." But as a pioneering saxophone recording, this album is very interesting indeed. (I believe that it's the first multi-record classical saxophone album recorded in the U.S.) On the original issue, three of the four movements are split onto two sides of a record - the short third movement is complete on the first part of side five - but I have edited the parts together and present them here as separate movements. In researching this blog entry, I found that there is already a transfer of these records online, but I immodestly think that my transfer is somewhat better.

There's a nice booklet included in the album, and due to the scarcity of these records (I searched for a copy for several years) I'm including scans of the all pages.

Moritz - Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano, op. 96:

First movement - Allegro molto

Second movement - Molto andante

Third movement - Scherzo - presto

Fourth movement - Finale - quasi allegro

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