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Alexandre TANSMAN (1897-1986)
Sextuor: ballet-bouffe (1923) [18:23]
Bric à brac: Ballet en 3 Tableaux [36:39]
Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Łukasz Borowicz (Sextuor), Wojciech Michniewski (Bric à brac)
rec. October 2002 (Bric à brac), November 2014 (Sextuor); venue not stated
CPO 777 987-2 [55:03]

Tansman was Polish but spent most of his life in Paris. He was invited to become a seventh member of Les Six but refused. (It would have had to become Les Sept.) He became a French citizen in 1938 but, as he was Jewish, he left Paris and spent the war years in Hollywood where he worked on films. He returned after the war. He was hugely prolific with several operas, nine symphonies, eight string quartets and many other works to his name. He is sometimes grouped with Szymanowski, Lutosławski and Penderecki as one of the leading Polish composers of his time but, I think it is fair to say, is far less well known now. However, he has been increasingly recorded – you can, for example get all nine of his symphonies (review) and I have greatly enjoyed his quartets (Etcetera KTC 2017).

Tansman’s musical idiom is neoclassicism, close to Poulenc and Milhaud though the composer he most resembles seems to me Martinů. All these composers have a common debt to Stravinsky and you can also hear a bit of bitonality, possibly picked up from Ravel, and some jazz touches, picked up from Gershwin. He knew all these people personally and seems to have been very well connected. So you can expect lively rhythms, pungent harmonies and good tunes.

Here we have two ballets. Sextuor sets a libretto by Alexandre Arnoux, best known as a screen writer, in which the chief characters are musical instruments: a flute, a violin, a cello, a trombone, a piano and a big drum. The story is a love triangle involving the violin and the cello as rivals in love for the flute. This ends badly for the cello and the violin and flute are then united. It was written in 1923 and scored for a symphony orchestra – not the sextet of the title, though of course all these instruments appear. It was very successful and has been periodically revived. The present performance derives from the first Polish production in 2014.

Bric à brac is also based on a libretto by Arnoux. It is set in a flea market in Paris and the story concerns the shenanigans among patrons of the fair. These are dominated by an unemployed violinist who finds what appears to be a broken old instrument, but it turns out be a Stradivarius with which he captivates the crowd, who are briefly transformed into idealized versions of themselves. Of course in the end it all comes to nothing. There are fourteen numbers. This is another lovely score, twice the lengthy of Sextuor, but it has had a chequered history. Tansman finished it in 1935 but a planned production was abandoned because of the war and the première did not take place until 1958. This performance comes from a revival in 2002.

I was expecting cheerful second-rank neoclassical pieces and was agreeably surprised to find that both these works are better than that. In fact they seem to me as good as Martinů’s ballets and they incline me to explore more Tansman. Admittedly, there is no great emotional depth, but that is not called for in these witty, Parisian ballets.

The performances are under two different conductors but they both seem to grasp and enjoy the idiom, and the orchestra play with a lot of gusto and, when required, sensitivity. Despite the differences in dates the two performances fit well with one another and I suspect they were both recorded in the Polish Radio Concert Studio, the orchestra’s home, which has been renamed after Łutoslawski. My one grumble is that each ballet is given only one track, so one cannot link the music to the action, which is set out in careful detail in the sleevenote. Both performances stem from Tansman festivals which are held in Poland, so I hope for more from this source. CPO are to be congratulated for finding and issuing these performances.

Stephen Barber



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