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Henri TOMASI (1901-1971)
Le silence de la mer - drame lyrique en 1 acte (1959) [32:55]
Bernard Demigny - Officier; Janine Capderou - Nièce
Orchestre lyrique de l'O.R.T.F./Pierre-Michel Le Conte
Symphonie du tiers-monde (1969) [21:03]
Orchestre philharmonique de l'O.R.T.F./Pierre Dervaux
Retour à Tipasa - cantate profane for orator, men's choir and orchestra (1966) [14:14]
Daniel Mesguich (orator)
Orchestre philharmonique et chœur de l'Opéra de Marseille/Patrick Davin
rec. 2005 (Tipasa), 1968 (Symphonie), 1971 (Silence)
AD VITAM AV121115 [68:14]

French composer Henri Tomasi is not numerously represented in the catalogue. This disc of radio-originated recordings - each in ruddy health - is well worth hearing and getting to know.

Le silence de la mer is a single act opera running about half an hour and setting words by Vercors - a wartime pseudonym adopted by Jean Bruller. The minimal plot has an old man and his niece showing resistance against the Nazis. The predominance of tense gloom is undeniable but there is more than a little melody scattered here and there. This includes a superb vocal cantabile at about 08:56 and a lengthy and touching Bachian arietta (almost Finzian) for piano and orchestra at around 11:00. Bernard Demigny pulls off a neat balance of bel canto and sprechgesang in which his acting ability is directly communicated. His singing is limber and rich in redolence. As it unfolds the piece reveals itself as a sung monologue with an upward gradient towards nightmare tension and despair verging at its peak on taloned horror. It's ironic that Le Silence, as heard in Berlin in 1959, was reckoned by Tomasi as an absolutely satisfying production; likewise the Berlin premiere in 1956 of Tomasi's full length opera Don Juan de Mañara. The latter was recorded by Forlane as was Tomasi's Le Triomphe de Jeanne. Neither disc is currently available; does anyone have Le Triomphe de Jeanne, I wonder?

Symphonie du tiers monde (Symphony of the Third World) was written as part of the Berlioz centenary celebrations but its soundworld has precious little to do with Berlioz except in the most generalised fantastic sense - perhaps a leaping-off point from the Scaffold and Sabbath movements of Symphonie Fantastique. Tomasi provided background text for each movement. Only three years away from death at this point, the composer channels insurrection and hope. He shows a fierce affinity with the cobble-throwing youth and banner-waving of the period; he would have made common cause with Alan Bush in the 1930s and 1940s. Three compact movements include a remorselessly searing and belligerent funeral march, Lamentoso. That glowering first movement is followed by an intense Allegro furioso placed under buckling heat by protesting and whooping brass, sharply stabbing strings and implacable percussion. The last movement is an Allegro giocoso in which a grim confidence in ejecting from the Temple the ills and injustices voiced in the earlier two movements drives things to a conclusion. This is crowned by rolling and roiling horns and the clang of victorious percussion. This startlingly clear recording was made in the composer's presence.

Retour à Tipasa, to spoken words by Albert Camus, is primarily a piece for reciter. Its compelling ways are amplified by the orchestra and a discreetly placed male chorus. The voices often vocalise but find words towards the end. Tension is again Tomasi's all-embracing hallmark with the wailing of the choir amplifying the effect. Sinister music-box chiming plays the same sort of ostinato role one hears in the 'riding' motif in Sibelius's Nightride and Sunrise. Tomasi was an enthusiast of the saxophone and the instrument puts in several prominent appearances. The reciter, Daniel Mesguich handles his central role with great concentration and with an attention to detail that extends to virtuosic variations of speed of delivery. This compact piece has the feeling of a radio piece and a touch of Roberto Gerhard's The Plague - another Camus piece from 1964.

These three works are taken from French radio and are in forthright sound. True there are a few moments where dynamic contrast is ironed out by the engineers as in Le Silence de la Mer but there is really nothing of substance to complain about.

The more than useful booklet note in French and English is by Frédéric Ducros.

If you would like to know more there is a lavishly illustrated and atmospheric book about Tomasi. It's by Michel Solis and is in French only.

Criticisms of the disc? Well, it's a pity that Le silence de la mer is presented in one track even if it is a single act opera. More lavish tracking would have been preferable. There are natural breaks here and there including at about 09:10 an extensive section of scene-setting narration. Two of the three works set words. I would have liked to find the words and translations in the otherwise admirable booklet.

The composer's son is Claude Tomasi-Solis. He has done a great deal for Tomasi's music and life story and I hope that in addition to the existing valuable disc he will find support and funding to do more. Quite apart from reissues of the Dutton, Lyrinx and Forlane discs we need to hear the seemingly opulent songs for voice and orchestra and the exotic tone poems, ballets and symphonies of the 1930s and 1940s.

Three eloquent and knowingly 20th century works by Henri Tomasi in recordings and performances that do justice to the material.

Rob Barnett



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