Up to now the discs of music by Alexandre Tansman that I’ve reviewed (and here) have been specifically written for children to play, including his own two daughters. He wrote them because he wanted to bridge the gap between the kind of mechanical study children often had inflicted on them by piano teachers and the works of the great masters. It can be imagined that my impression was of a kindly man who pursued that goal with resolution and vigour, writing a great deal of such music but leaving me unclear about what other music he wrote. This disc clears that up at least as far as solo piano works are concerned for it reveals quite another side of Tansman’s musical personality.
In common with several other composers in the 1920s and 1930s Tansman enjoyed writing music based upon the style of the seventeenth century. He wrote his Suite dans le style ancien in 1929, in Paris where he’d already been living for ten years. Composers have always enjoyed harking back musically to the era of J.S. Bach and his contemporaries. Examples from various times range from Grieg’s Holberg Suite, a Suite dans le style ancien by d’Indy, both written in the 1880s and Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony of 1917, to those by Henryk Gorecki (1963) and Alfred Schnittke (1973). The attraction of writing in neo-Baroque style is still something that inspires composers today.
Tansman with what seems like typical modesty described the suite as a “passing fancy” which may suggest it was not meant to be taken too seriously whereas it is a genuinely attractive and extremely satisfying work which fulfils its remit perfectly. Though he was often fond of saying that despite his living for the bulk of his life outside his native country his music was unmistakably Polish this work is devoid of any specific Polish references. The Sarabande and the Gavotte are particularly effective in their Baroque references but the entire suite is a wonderfully inventive excursion back in time from a ‘modern’ perspective.
While it is the case that the majority of composers work out their ideas on a piano it doesn’t follow that they are all sufficiently proficient on the instrument to have a career playing their own music. That said, when you read that Tansman gave the first performance of his Ballade No.3 it becomes clear that he must have been an extremely good pianist; just listen to the section from 8 minutes in to see what I mean. The Ballades are his most overtly and intensely personal works and they reflect his anxiety at having to leave France for America with his family as the Nazis tightened their grip on the adopted country he had so grown to love. They are acutely original in their conception and all three are laden with sombre overtones. Despite this they give the listener a highly rewarding experience and encourage repeated hearings.
The six Arabesques of 1930 are delicious little delicacies each representing a particular genre. The first three Intermezzo, Mazurka (Hommage à Chopin) and Nocturne are extremely intimate and draw you into another very personal world while the Fanfare soon stirs you from any reverie. Berceuse allows a return to that state before the final Danza which is a spirited and joyous conclusion.
The Cinq Impressions, written in Paris in 1934 were no doubt influenced by the international travel he had just returned from and are lovely little vignettes. I’m always amazed at the wealth of material and the number of ideas that some composers can pack into a tiny time-frame. Tansman is certainly one such and I quote from the booklet notes by Gérald Hugon, which are extremely well translated by Susannah Howe, to illustrate the point. “... Animé, cast in tripartite form, is the most traditional piece in the cycle. Three layers of sound go to make up this joyous work: a melody based on a four-note cell, a sinuous, generally chromatic middle line, and an accompaniment in minor sevenths.” All that in a piece lasting a mere 56 seconds.
Written in 1949 in homage to J.S. Bach the Eight Cantilenas were designed with the aim as Hugon writes “... to salute the universal nature of the reflective, meditative content of the great man’s music” rather than an attempt to imitate his style. These are highly thoughtful, cerebral pieces, though that is not to say that there is not an emotional element in them; in fact it is a perfect marriage of both that is in evidence throughout. The 7th, Fuga, is perhaps the most overtly Bachian but all leave little doubt as to whom the homage is being paid. The Prélude and Postlude are musical mirror-images of each other with the Postlude making for a satisfying conclusion to this personal tribute to the great master.
Following the three aforementioned discs of Tansman’s music I have previously reviewed this CD reveals a multi-faceted composer whose prowess on the piano is reflected in his music for it. I note from the CD that there are other works of his to be had including chamber music as well as music for strings and concertos. I look forward to exploring these. I often find myself bemoaning the way some composers are sidelined at certain periods of history and Tansman, it seems to me is yet another example. His rediscovery today belies the fact that he became extremely well known not long after his arrival in Paris featuring on the programmes of all the city’s major concert societies. He was even getting recognition on the other side of the Atlantic as early as 1925.
Together with the Polish label Acte Préalable and Chandos, Naxos (review review) and its sister label Marco Polo (Symphony No. 5 8.223379; Concerto for Orchestra 8. 223757) are doing great service in giving greater exposure to his music. I hope people will enjoy discovering a real wealth of fine music from this modest kindly man. Eliane Reyes, the Belgian pianist on this disc has done a fine job in interpreting the many different moods to be found within this elegant music.