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Alexandre TANSMAN (1897-1986)
Symphonies vol. 1 - The War Years Symphony No. 4 (1936-39) [21:13] Symphony No. 5 (1942) [26:26]
Symphony No. 6 In Memoriam (1944) [20:14]
Melbourne Chorale
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra/Oleg Caetani
rec. 2005, Roger Blackwood Hall, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia

As I said when I reviewed Volumes 2-4 of the Tansman-Caetani-Melbourne-Chandos survey, that series pretty much crept surreptitiously into the catalogue. It received little attention and even less acclaim. Tansman's imaginative music merits more than a mere bookmark. When that first group review was in hand back in 2010 I was unable to source volume 1. I have it now and with this review the series' coverage by our site is something like complete.

Tansman was born in Poland and moved to Paris - revered as the sympathetic centre of musical modernism, as pointed out by Caroline Rae in her excellent liner-note - when he was twenty. Koussevitsky commissioned a brace of piano concertos from him (1925, 1927) which the composer followed up with a concert tour of the USA in 1927-8. Rather like Martinů, he decamped from Paris to the USA as the Nazi invasion took its course. Even so his move was delayed until 1941 although he enjoyed the support of a committee including Chaplin¸ Ormandy and Heifetz. Tansman was one of a number of composers, including Koechlin and Aubert, who wrote works inspired by Charlie Chaplin. His second piano concerto is dedicated to Chaplin. Like many another émigré, he earned some of his living writing scores for the Hollywood film world, although none have achieved an independent recorded or concert life. His music was strongly advocated by Vladimir Golschmann and this connection is well documented in Chris Howell's article on a conductor whose reputation has otherwise slipped into the background. Tansman moved in charmed circles with connections among the greats of his day. His friendships also included Ravel, Stravinsky and Milhaud. Tansman wrote an orchestral Élégie à la Mémoire de Darius Milhaud. A superb biographical entry on Tansman can be found at Musica et Memoria.

Tansman is no stranger to CD but until the systematic and resplendent Chandos series his presence in the catalogue was precarious and patchy. There has been quite a bit of activity since then, including Etcetera (chamber music), two CDs from Marco Polo including the Fifth Symphony, the Violin Concerto on Olympia and Dux and the Fourth Symphony on both Koch Schwann and Dux. His music for harp and orchestra is on both Dux and Harp & Co. Toccata issued two volumes of his solo piano music (Vol. 1 Vol. 2) and Chandos have a single-disc collection from Margaret Fingerhut on CHAN 10527. There are other discs.

These three symphonies were written during the period 1936-1944. The first two are for orchestra alone while No. 6 adds a mixed chorus but to only one of the four movements. The three carry a spread of dedications: The Fourth, to his wife, who gave birth to their daughter Mireille in 1939, the Fifth to the conductor Paul Klecki and the Sixth to those who had fallen in cause of France. None of the three are of epic proportions - they occupy between 20 and 26 minutes.

The Fourth is in three movements. The first movement seethes with a slightly chilly tortured emotionalism which once or twice exudes a sense of nostalgia (8:10). It ends peacefully and from that peace the second movement emerges in an Adagio which ends tranquillo. This is romantic even 'Hollywood-like' (it was written in Hollywood) but with a slight Tapiola chill in the air (1:36). The Allegro giocoso finale dances along en pointe and like all three works is superbly orchestrated. It has a Gallic air, rather like the Lajtha symphonies but more pellucidly orchestrated. Tansman also draws on an incessant motoric energy that ends the piece in affirmation.

The Fifth Symphony is in four movements. The first, a Lento, swoons with clouds of sound. These are heavily seeded with tragedy and uncertainty. A tendency towards dancing and activity soon asserts itself in pages that seem to evoke Tippett's Concerto for Double String Orchestra. It ends peaceably but with a shiver. That mood is maintained throughout the following Intermezzo. There's then a delicately capering Scherzo - Vivo which from time to time sounds quite Stravinskian. The finale begins with a towering doom-laden Lento, seemingly weighed down by Fate but with quiet contrasting tenderness. A fugal passage propels the argument along with something close to jollity. This sounds close to Martinů (6:10) but is counterpoised by the seething chill encountered in the first movement of No. 4. The Symphony subsides into a healing and healed Lento Cantabile. The Fifth Symphony was premiered on 31 January 1943 with Tansman directing the NSO Washington. It is perhaps the least unpopular of Tansman's nine symphonies.

The Sixth Symphony, written in Los Angeles in 1944, here receives its first recording. It is four movements - played continuously - with each carrying a specific orchestration: I, wind instruments, percussion, and piano; II, strings and string quartet; III full orchestra; IV choir and orchestra. The words are by Tansman and are in French. Both the original and very decently done German and English translations are given in the insert booklet.

The orchestration of the first movement is typically razor-sharp in focus. It carries gloomy intimations and echoes the quiet sections in The Rite of spring. The second pitches us brusquely into an exciting whirlwind of strings Agitato molto vivace. This by itself would make a good passage for a musical quiz. The string quartet writing provides succour for the soul. The third movement takes up and develops the whirlwind of the second in a Vivo agitato. The Melbourne Chorale are nicely ethereal in the finale. They sing words that occupy the heartland of a soldiers' sleep of death, jazzy, full of life and resentment. Among laments for dead soldiers it sits well and concisely alongside RVW's Dona Nobis Pacem especially the Dirge for two veterans. It ends on a querulous note around the words "Sleep in forgetting and calm, sleep in gentle peace." It is the shortest of the symphonies here

The Melbourne Orchestra play very well. They can also be heard with Caetani in Shostakovich 11 on ABC and in the forgotten Chandos collection of pieces by Rudi Stephan, a slain soldier-composer.

As I said in 2010 about volumes 2-4, I came away from the listening session wanting to hear more Tansman, including the grand oratorio Isaie le Prophète preferably coupled with the Psaumes for tenor, chorus and orchestra. This wish is now fulfilled, in part, courtesy of Forgotten Records. Beyond Tansman's symphonies there are twenty-one concertos, seven operas, eleven ballets, eight string quartets and much else.

This is a hybrid SACD which plays happily in a conventional CD player in which form I reviewed the disc.

Tansman’s occasional neo-classical tendencies rise to meet the passionate sap. The music can be emotionally chilly but overall it is more ripe Lambert and Martinů than desiccated Markevitch or Hindemith.
Rob Barnett



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