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Alexandre TANSMAN (1897-1986)
Piano Music - Volume One
Sonata Rustica (Piano Sonata No.1) (1925) [15:18]
Quatre Danses miniatures (1923)* [5:20]
Mazurkas: Book I (1918-28) [17:26]
Étude-Scherzo (1922): Molto vivace [1:18]
Seven Préludes (1921)* [13:10]
Sonatina (No.1) (1923) [8:45]
Five Impromptus (1922-25)* [8:09]
Danny Zelibor (piano)
rec. 2014, Winspear Performance Hall, Murchison Performing Arts Center, Denton, Texas, USA
*First recordings

Alexandre Tansman is one of several discoveries I have made over the last two years and one I am really pleased about. As the pianist on this disc, Danny Zelibor points out, he is one of those composers whose style is so distinct that after hearing enough of his works he can easily be identified. There are all kinds of musical indicators to reveal his hand as with people like Beethoven, Sibelius, Martinů and Richard Strauss. He drew his influences from as wide a field as possible and I wholeheartedly agree with Zelibor’s statement that he “believed that to ignore influence was to do disservice to the process of composition”, a truly noble sentiment and an attitude that makes him the fascinating and rewarding composer that he is.

This series of which this is Volume One, will focus largely on the piano works Tansman wrote for adults to play while the considerable number of pieces he wrote for children to play — mainly inspired by his two daughters — are presently being recorded by Elżbieta Tyszecka on the Polish label Acte Préalable (AP0205, AP0246, AP0255, AP0255, AP0270) and are well worth exploring as are her other Tansman discs (AP0326, AP0153).

The piano works presented here date from his early years in Paris where he had gone from Warsaw having come across an indifference from music critics at home. This was partly fired by an anti-Semitism that seemed endemic in Poland. These early works show what an accomplished musician he already was, a fact underlined by his scooping the first, second and third prizes in a Polish national composition competition by the age of 22.

In common with many other émigré composers Tansman always considered himself ‘un compositeur polonais’. This was despite spending his entire life abroad from 1919 until his death in 1986, five of those years in the USA and the rest in France. Though, as mentioned above he was happy to draw on influences from other countries and cultures, he always maintained distinct and distinctive elements from his Polish heritage. He often tapped into the rich vein of Polish folk music, something that informed and enriched his natural facility for writing exceptionally good tunes. His Sonata Rustica (Piano Sonata No.1) is a perfect example of this with plenty of folk references, particularly in the third movement. Zelibor explains in his notes how Tansman was helped by Ravel to whom the Sonata is dedicated. Especially useful was Ravel's counsel to stick to the point and not be tempted to go off at a tangent thus avoiding lapsing into ‘empty musical prattle’. This was clearly taken very much to heart for you never get that impression with Tansman’s music. There is always a point in it and an aim that he persists in pursuing.

That single-mindedness of purpose is one of the main driving forces in his pieces all of which benefit from it making them infinitely listenable. In recent years a new interest has brought his music to a new public; there was a time, not long after he first arrived in Paris, when he was among the most talked about and performed composers in France but as often happens interest waned post Second World War though for no apparent reason. When you hear these fabulously inventive and charming little pieces it is hard to understand how they could ever have lost their popularity. From his Quatre Danses miniatures (here receiving their first recording) and his Mazurkas: Book I, his 7 Préludes (also a first recording) and his Sonatina (No.1) through to his 5 Impromptus (the final pieces receiving their first recording) his incredible versatility and innate ear for melody are apparent for all to hear. Listening to the sixth and eighth of his Mazurkas in particular I was struck by the similarity with Bartók in terms both of style and content inasmuch that each composer uses folk melodies in such an artful fashion. His tiny Étude-Scherzo is one of the earliest examples of Tansman’s experiments with polytonality though even then his pure ‘musicality’ prevents it from spiralling off into the realms of the untuneful.

It is always surprising to be treated to first recordings written as far back as the 1920s and there are three on this disc. It was fascinating to hear them and to read the helpful notes. These highlight what to listen out for among which was an indication that there are echoes of Scriabin among others in Tansman’s experimental 7 Préludes and so there are. In fact that feeling often occurs when Tansman is at his most dreamy creating a state in which fantasy plays a strong role.

The works on this disc seem all the more impressive when one is reminded that they were written when the composer was in his twenties and had another fifty plus years of composition ahead of him. He never wasted any of those years, producing a huge volume of works. He was definitely one of those composers who ‘hit the ground running’ for these early works do not betray any struggle to find his style. His ensuing compositional life was more one of development and refinement.

I’ve always been impressed by Tansman’s works and this disc proves no exception. Danny Zelibor is obviously an enthusiast and can write authoritatively about the music he plays. He gives us compelling performances that will surely win over new fans for this thoroughly decent and principled human being and superlative composer. Toccata continues to shed new light on undeservedly obscure composers and deserve support and thanks from all music-lovers.

Steve Arloff



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