The Polaris Duo perform works for the unusual combination of saxophone and harp. The Duo consists of Gillian Blair (saxophones) and Elinor Nocholson (harp). Although they have been performing as the Polaris Duo since 2011, this year sees the release of their first album "Illuminate". As they say on the album's liner notes "As an ensemble of such unusual instrumentation, we have found it liberating to be free from expectation regarding our choice of repertoire." Their choice of repertoire goes from the 18th century baroque/classical world of CPE Bach to contemporary composers, and the breadth of the album showcases the versatility of the artists and their instruments. It should also be said that the juxtaposition of sounds from their instruments is also free from expectation, since many people will not have heard this instrumental combo before. One might imagine that the sax will overpower the harp, but the album demonstrates a judicious balance, with the different timbres shining through in the mix.
The unusual instrumentation must surely make it harder to find suitable repertoire. There are a few ready made works for this combination included on the album, and the duo also do what many other musicians do: adapt works created for other instruments. In most cases very little compromise has been required to realise these works for sax and harp, and the different members of the sax family give further flexibility to this approach ranging from the soprano and sometimes breathy alto to the more mellow tenor and baritone sax.
The album opens with the Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Harp by Andy Scott. The composer is a saxophonist himself so he really understands the instrument, though this particular work can also be played on Flute or Clarinet. After a mysterious start the first movement has a rhythmic intensity, like a folk dance with ethnic scales, while the harmonies of the succeeding movements suggest a jazz influence before returning to the propulsion of the first movement. Although Scott knows the saxophone intimately he also gives the harp plenty of material including strumming and percussive techniques. The Duo's splendid rendition of Scott's Sonata really shows what this instrumental combination is capable of. The next work by Saint-Saëns is a perfect example where works originally conceived for one instrument or group can readily be adapted with little compromise. Saint-Saëns' Fantaisie op.124 was originally written for Violin and Harp and the Duo perform this on Soprano Sax and Harp. Typical of many works by the French composer, the music comes across as carefree with loosely connected episodes yet with hidden depth, transitioning through a Spanish sounding middle section before ending with sax flourishes and harp glissandi.
The Notturno uses a baritone saxophone, and the combination of the distinct registers and the composition itself allows the harp to shine with its flowing scales and arpeggios against the lyrical thrust of the sax. Spheres by Melissa Douglas is a change of pace, starting in a peaceful impressionistic fashion yet turning more determined and purposeful. The next work by Rob Buckland is called "Song Without Words". Traditionally under Mendelssohn and other composers a "Song Without Words" has implied a work consisting of a clear melody plus accompaniment, but in this case it is much more of a beautiful dialogue between the two instruments. So the (soprano) sax soars and the harp holds its own, individual and yet supporting. It is not so long ago that the Sonata in G minor by C.P.E. Bach was attributed to his father Johann Sebastian (and catalogued as BWV 1020). It is for Violin and Harpsichord, yet frequently played on the Flute. Here we hear it on Soprano sax and harp showing again how works many works can readily adapt to different instrumentation.
The Lullaby by Paul Mitchell-Davidson is for Tenor Saxophone and Harp, and has a suitably dreamy quality. This was originally written for Andy Scott, so brings the album full circle and to a fitting close. The Duo have an intriguing sound with a masterful attention to detail shaping that sound to suit a diverse range of works. The album "Illuminate" is well-named and shines a light on these musicians and their broad repertoire. The Duo's website www.PolarisDuo.com provides further details about the album and how it may be purchased. Also listed are a number of concert dates in summer 2018 and beyond where you can hear the Duo perform live. Finally here is a sampler on youtube to give a flavour of album - Polaris Duo: Illuminate - album preview.