The joint Caetani-Chandos-Tansman symphonic cycle has pretty much
sidled into the catalogue and has received little acclaim. This
imaginative music merits better treatment.
Tansman was born in Lodz in Poland but moved to Paris when he
was twenty. His works were taken up by Vladimir Golschmann and
Serge Koussevitsky. The latter 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. Like Koechlin and Aubert the international
celebrity of Charlie Chaplin (Charlot) drew a work from Tansman.
In fact the second piano concerto is dedicated to Chaplin. The
invasion of France propelled Tansman to the USA where, like many
another émigré, he earned a living in the bear-pit of the Hollywood
There’s a superb biographical entry on Musica
Tansman is no stranger to CD but until this resplendent series
his presence in the catalogue has been precarious. There has been
quite a bit of activity from Etcetera on the chamber music front,
two CDs from Marco Polo including the Fifth Symphony, the Violin
Concerto on Olympia and the Fourth Symphony on both Koch Schwann
Chandos do not do things by halves. We start with Volume 2 simply
because I have not heard the first CD in this series which includes
Symphonies 4, 5 and 6 ‘In memoriam'. These are played by the Melbourne
Symphony Orchestra with the Melbourne Chorale conducted by Oleg
Caetani. It’s on Chandos CHSA5041 (SACD) entitled The War Years.
Turning to Volume 3 first: The 1926 Second Symphony
in four movements for full orchestra. This is a work of sprung
athletic ideas. A little heartless, à la Markevitch, in the outer
movements, it is in fact touching in a Gallic sense in the Lento.
The Scherzo is a skittery, fey, shining and twinkling web. The
Symphony is dedicated to Koussevitsky who premiered it in Paris
on 28 May 1927. I should add that the First Symphony is lost.
In the Quatre Mouvements
of 1967-68 there are reminiscences
of Markevitch and perhaps a touch of Eugene Goossens in his final
1950s phase. The first movement is marked by a fluttering ostinato
followed in the second by a feathery avian concatenation. The
third movement is memorable for its spare textures and bells rung
and hammered. There is humanity aplenty in the finale with a ruthless
stuttered ostinato, full of intrigue and engagement. At the end
there is a falling away into a diaphanous Ravelian decay of bells
and a silvery gleam.
The Third Symphony Symphonie Concertante
is for violin, viola, cello, piano and orchestra. It was premiered
in Brussels on 6 March 1932. The movements reflect a style familiar
from Grainger and Ravel, from Jazz Age Stravinsky, from the squeaky-beguiling-sinister
originality of Ravel’s Mother Goose
and finally from the
flashing and flittering neo-classical syncopation of Dumbarton
Turning to volume 2: The Seventh Symphony Lyrique
was written in Los Angeles and is dedicated to Vera and
Igor Stravinsky. It was premiered in St Louis by Golschmann. It
is a work of some urgency of expression with at first a touch
of 1940s Martinu of an athletic clean-limbed nature. There’s a
cool and pavane-like magical atmosphere in the second movement
and in the third a jerky streaming life complete with the evocation
of car-horns. Things are aptly rounded by a contemplative finale.
The Eight Symphony
is entitled Musique pour Orchestre
It was completed in the year he published his monograph on Stravinsky:
1948. Premiered by Kubelik with the Italian Radio Symphony Orchestra,
its lines are silvery and cleanly defined. There’s a slowly mellifluous
and contemplative Elegie
dedicated to Franz André, the
fine Belgian conductor whose name will be known to those who sought
out Belgian music LPs. The third movement is a busy, minimalistically-scored
little scherzo. Its skittery career suggests Shostakovich. The
many streaming fugal lines manage to be more romantic than academic.
The finale begins subdued but then plays extravagantly with a
fugal weave of great arching and leaping lines. It ends with a
typical Stravinskian fast-trudge and a booted Petrushka
A decade later came his Ninth Symphony
, a work written
for himself and not as a commission. It kicked a trend evident
in his last decades when he became known for works without the
word ‘symphony’ in the title. The first is all leaping activity.
The second is a heartfelt threnody. The third again draws on his
mastery of evoking shimmering, tinkling, shining and gleaming
textures dashed against carefree and fluttering woodwind writing.
The finale opens with a pensive introduction which paves the way
for a double fugue of ambitious proportions and boisterous temperament.
This again and sounds like Markevitch at times. It is excitingly
carefree at the end in a burst of pages that throwing off any
sign of the academic’s skeletal hand.
All three of these works are between 21 and 22 minutes long. The
style is not loquacious or high-flown but economical and to the
point. However do not expect major florid emotional statements.
Volume 4 is the last in the series and has only recently (2009)
The sound quality is deeply impressive with the jazzy surging
ferment of the Sinfonie de chambre
caught in every
detail, even in the complexity of the initial Toccata
in the final movement. For a work dating from 1960 it’s surprisingly
reminiscent of Constant Lambert’s ballets. Less Stravinskian than
I had expected, Caetani and his lustrous and expert Swiss orchestra
make these pages zing and exult as they should. They do this without
scouting over the passionate depth of the central Elegie - its
doughty string paeans are fully put across. The singing scalpel
and swinging hammer of the strings reminded me a little of Martinu.
Other moments suggest a cross with Kurt Weill. Despite its diminutive
proportions the work and its emotional cortex feel epic and deeply
The Sinfonietta No.1
is scored for orchestra with single
woodwinds, brass, and piano and is dedicated to the composer Louis
Gruenberg (1884-1964). There is a touch of jazzy Lambert here
amid the pellucid orchestration but also of Stravinsky’s Petrushka
and of Ravel’s Mother Goose
. The latter can be heard
in the creepiness of the Notturno
and the seraphic peace
of the Mazurka. It’s a work bristling with delightful ideas and
aural coups de théâtre
comes from the other end of his life.
It was commissioned by Polish Radio and dates from 1978. It was
premiered as part of Tansman’s 80th birthday celebrations in Poland.
In four movements like its predecessor, it infers a more philosophical
man behind the notes with rhetoric balanced by reflection. The
piano remains a strong accentuating part of the aural picture.
The music still glints and flutters and in no sense suggests a
tired imagination as the second movement makes clear with its
flutters. A fleeting Adagio
a chilly spell before making way for a jazzily athletic, even
belligerent, Finale romantico
with singing strings and
beautifully created gleaming textures.
The Sinfonia Piccola
was commissioned by the French
Ministry of Education and dedicated to a famous surgeon, Dr Jean-Louis
Lortat-Jacob. Its four movements encompass Ravelian reflective
melancholy, spliced with Stravinskian neo-classicism, Lambertian
effervescence, Gershwin street-scenes and exultation. Its weakness
is its rather perfunctory ending. By a short margin it is, despite
its title, the longest of the pieces on volume 4.
The satisfactorily detailed liner-note is by Troja Trochimczyk.
If you remain to be convinced and do not want to splash out on
all four discs in one go then go for volume 4. If that does not
enthuse you then Tansman may not be the composer for you. I was
ready not to be impressed but came away wanting to hear his other
works including the reputedly grand oratorio Isaie le Prophète
preferably coupled, as suggested by Musica et Memoria, with the
for tenor, chorus and orchestra. It would also
be good to hear his opera Sabbatai Zevi
Tansman’s music: superficially neo-classical on the surface but
superbly rich in rising emotional sap. More Lambert and ripe Martinu
than desiccated Stravisnky or Hindemith.