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Alexandre TANSMAN (1897-1986)
11 interludes (1955) [14:00]
Hommage à Arthur Rubinstein (1973) [4:25]
2 pièces Hébraïques (1955) [9:12]
4 piano moods (1944) [4:38]
Prélude et toccata (1943) [5:08]
6 caprices (excerpts) (1941) [8:28]
Visit to Israel (1958) [13:29]
Étude (studio per pianoforte) (1967) [6:47]
Giorgio Koukl (piano)
rec. 2018, Bottega del pianoforte, Lugano, Switzerland
World première recordings
GRAND PIANO GP788 [66:21]

My acquaintance with the music of Alexandre Tansman has been confined to an appreciation of his symphonies, all of which have been reviewed eloquently by Rob Barnett (Volume 1 and Volume 2). I gave an enthusiastic appreciation of his oratorio Isaie last year. I am pleased to make an initial encounter with his piano music, performed on this new release by Giorgio Koukl. Reading about the Czech pianist, I discovered that he has recorded a great deal of off-the-beaten track repertoire, much of it on the Grand Piano label.

Although Tansman was born in Poland, he lived most of his life in France. During the War he fled Europe for Los Angeles, sensing danger from the Nazis due to his Jewish background. When hostilities ceased, he returned to Paris. His Francophile leanings exposed him to more modern influences than he could have received from the more conservative climate of Poland. His mentors and influences were Stravinsky and Ravel. He also rubbed shoulders with the likes of Honegger and Milhaud, who extended an invitation for him to join 'Les Six'. An independent and free spirit, he declined. His post-War return to France left him lagging behind in fashion, which had become more avant-garde. His solution was to revisit his Jewish and Polish musical roots, and this resulted in some of his finest achievements.

He was, by all accounts, an accomplished pianist, so his music for the instrument is imaginatively constructed and well-crafted. Approaching this music as a novice, I note that much of it is infused with Stravinskian neo-classicism and with the percussive angularity of Prokofiev. This is most evident in the 2nd, 7th and 11th Interludes written in 1955, and in the first of the Caprices from 1946.

After 1946, the composer’s Jewish and Polish roots took on an added significance. His 2 pièces Hébraïques from 1955 were written for either organ or piano. Invention is solemn and dignified, with a static quality, and shrouded in an air of mystery. I prefer Berceuse Juive for its radiant sonorities.

Three years later Tansman made his first visit to Israel, and the result was a ten-movement suite Visit to Israel. Strikingly evocative and incorporating Jewish themes, the work is an absolute delight. The Ruins of Capernaum (No. III) has a vividly Hebraic aura, whilst The Sources of the River Jordan (No. IV) has a diaphanous fluidity. There is a potent starkness to The Desert of Negev (No. VI), in total contrast to the rhythmic vitality and drive of the final piece, Popular Dance (Hora).

In 1973 Tansman composed Hommage á Arthur Rubinstein for the inauguration of the first Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition in Tel Aviv. The first of the two pieces is aptly titled Tempo di Mazurka. The second, Toccata, demands virtuosity of the highest order.

The persuasive and glowing accounts of this thought-provoking music could have no better advocate than Giorgio Koukl. Not only do his interpretations showcase a prodigious technique, but are tempered with a wealth of interpretive flair. He is blessed with a piano that sensitively responds to the subtleties and nuances of the music, and an acoustic that, in my opinion, could not be bettered.

Though several CDs in circulation feature the composer’s piano music, this release states that all the pieces featured here are world premiere recordings, so this should prove a further enticement to Tansman devotees.

Stephen Greenbank
Previous review: Steve Arloff

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