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Alexandre TANSMAN (1897-1986)
Le Train de nuit (1951) [16:21]
Sonate pour deux pianos (1940) [17:19]
Fantaisie sur les valses de Johann Strauss (1961) [8:56]
La Grande Ville (1934) [12:20]
Duo d’Accord: Lucia Huang & Sebastian Euler (pianos)
rec. 2017, Funkstudio SWR, Stuttgart.
SWR MUSIC SWR19053CD [55:00]

Polish-born Alexandre Tansman is best remembered as being part of the vibrant arts scene during the inter-war years in Paris, but we tend to forget that he continued working back in Paris for four decades after the war. The entirety of his output continues to undergo a re-appraisal, evidenced by this première recording of Le Train de nuit, and other works for which I could find no readily available alternatives on CD.

Le Train de nuit was written as ballet music, the scenario being that of two people dreaming during a train journey at night. The spectacular opening is descriptive of a speeding train, the music soon transforming into eclectically surreal nocturnal goings-on that includes a salon waltz with perhaps a wink towards Ravel, a slow Rumba, and some intermezzos that to my ears recall the likes of Shostakovich and Milhaud, though I’m sure other listeners will have their own associations. In any case, this is a great discovery – a veritable virtuoso feast of musical fun and played with great verve by Duo d’Accord.

The Sonate por deux pianos emerged as the horrors of World War II were becoming all too apparent, with the Jewish Tansman and his family escaping to Nice and anxiously awaiting an opportunity to travel to America. Classical in structure, the tonalities of this work hold down a dark whole-tone flavour that feels minor-key while going beyond such conventions. That is not to say that the rhythmic drive in the first movement lacks energy – on the contrary, but the compelling feel is one that drives a machine laden with doom rather than with positive forces. The second movement Adagio continues in this enigmatic tonal idiom, with quasi-lyrical lines that never escape a tight orbit of never-ending stresses. A brief Molto vivace scherzo presents a wild impression of impish presences chasing each other in a high wind, the movement acting as a prelude to the monumental Moderato opening of the final movement. This develops into an impressive Allegro deciso fugue, “which once again demonstrates the intransigent power of a rigid structure.”

The most recent piece here is the Fantaisie sur les valses de Johann Strauss which, after a rather enigmatic opening, unashamedly enters the salon music world of Vienna. Tansman combines and layers Strauss’s waltzes into a sort of pot-pourri, but one of the highest calibre. Even with this ‘arrangement’ character there are interesting things to listen out for, in particular an early use of a polychord that has become known as the “Tansman chord”, which he was to use frequently in later works.

La Grande Ville is another ballet score, this time for the German Tanztheater. The narrative “is about a love that gradually dies whereas the accompanying music – completely impervious to what is going on – provides the ‘le jazz hot’ feeling of the 1930s.” This is the kind of music which one can imagine fitting the tale behind any number of early silent movies, with cleverly constructed Fox-Trot, Blues and Charleston dances, the latter setting up a simultaneous dual drama that creates the conclusion to this sentimental tale, ultimately leaving the unfortunate male protagonist alone: “une figure humaine seule et désolée dans l’inhumanité de la Grand Ville.”

Superbly performed and recorded this is the kind of piano disc that everyone should have around. There is searing if elusive expressive depth in the Sonata and great fun to be had elsewhere, so if you’re up for discovering some excellent sounds then this is a terrific place to spend some quality time.

Dominy Clements


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