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Alexander TANSMAN (1897-1986)
Isaïe, le prophète, Oratorio for Tenor, Mixed Choir and Orchestra (1949-50) [45:34]
Triptyque for String Orchestra (1930) [18:17]
Cornelis Kalkman (tenor)
Hilversum Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir/Paul van Kempen
The Zimbler Sinfonietta (triptych)
rec. January 1955; March 1952 (triptych)

Alexandre Tansman was born in Łódź, Poland in 1897. He studied music in the academy there from 1912-1914, then furthered his studies in Warsaw and Paris, where he befriended Ravel, Milhaud and Honegger. As a Jew he was forced to flee to the States in 1940, and worked for a time on Hollywood film scores. He returned to Paris after the war, and died there in 1986.

His Oratorio Isaïe, le prophète has been poorly served by record companies. In fact this is the only commercially recorded document of the work I could find and, thanks to Forgotten Records, we can hear this 1955 performance, taken from Philips (A 00317l) and Epic (LC 3298) LPs. The work dates from 1950 and was one of several forays the composer made into Judaically inspired music. He had already composed his Rapsodie hébraïque back in 1933. Isaïe, le prophète made its first outing in the concert hall under the composer’s direction on 5 May 1955 in Paris. It received an American premiere on 12 March 1955 in Los Angeles, under the baton of Franz Waxman. It had to wait for half a century for its first Polish performance.  Obtaining information on this work has proved difficult. There’s next to nothing in the English language on the internet. Tansman chose and utilized his own Biblical texts which he adapted. Forgotten records have provided substantial annotations but they are in French only. No sung texts are included, neither could I find any. The Oratorio honours the victims of the Holocaust.

The work is structured in seven sections. The music begins darkly and quietly. Tansman employs some lightly-textured woodwind writing, which conveys an atmosphere of calm and serenity. The choir enter after a couple of minutes; their words are accompanied by an ominous funereal tread. The pace becomes more energetic and animated in section 2. The tenor soloist, Cornelis Kalkman, makes his sole appearance in the third section Interlude, titled ‘Prière’. Sections 5 and 6 are for orchestra alone. Five is a lively and spiky fugue, where the composer flexes his contrapuntal muscles. Six, in contrast, is a radiant Lento Interlude. Tansman pulls all the stops out for the rousing final section for chorus and orchestra.

Triptyque arose out of a commission from the American patron of the arts Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, to whom the work is dedicated. Unlike the Oratorio, this is one of the composer’s more popular scores. His discography lists more recordings of this work than any other. It was written in Paris between September and December 1930, and also exists in a string quartet version. Neoclassical in style, two animated and energetic outer movements, brimming with vitality and gusto, frame a central Andante of beguiling, warmly-contoured lyricism. The work gets a gripping performance from The Zimbler Sinfonietta, who direct themselves. The recording has been expertly transferred from a pristine copy of a mono Decca LP (DL 9625). I reviewed a modern recording of the string quartet version with the Adamus Quartet on the Gramola label a couple of years ago.

I’m pleased to have made the acquaintance of Isaïe, le prophète. It’s a work of both dramatic mood swings and devotional intensity. The recording is in dated sound but more than acceptable. The time is now ripe for some enterprising label to take it up and offer us a modern recording.

Stephen Greenbank





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