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Alexandre TANSMAN (1897-1986)
11 interludes (1955) [14.00]
Hommage á 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]

There are, unfortunately, too many instances in music in which the fickle finger of fate regrettably played a greater role than it ought to have. Alexandre Tansman is one of dozens of composers whose work was suddenly deemed ‘passé’ as tastes changed or were moulded by those with the power to make or break music makers. There will be plenty of music lovers for whom Schoenberg, Webern and Berg, among others, are household names, but for whom the name of Tansman will be a new one, yet in 1941 an American newspaper described him as “One of the leading composers of his time, he [Tansman] is among the first ten in the list of contemporary composers whose works are most performed on concert programs today”. Indeed in 1946 he was nominated for an Oscar for best music in the Academy Awards, won that year by Miklós Rózsa for his music for Spellbound. A glance at Wikipedia will show that he wrote over 300 works covering all genres from operas to concertos and symphonies; and string quartets to guitar music plus a great deal of piano music for children, and it notes that “almost all his works have now been recorded on CDs”; however, the piano works on this CD are all world premières. One of the most striking characteristics that come through in Tansman’s music is the honesty with which it is imbued. There are no attempts to be ‘clever’ or ‘quirky’ or overtly ‘contemporary’ in order to curry favour with the musical establishment, as he stuck rigidly to his French neo-Classical style. As the booklet notes by Anthony Short point out “…he offered his critics some cautionary words: ‘Modern music tries too hard to be aggressive and avant-garde. It uses non-musical elements which can certainly be brought into structure, but ought not to be an end in themselves.’ He also warned about falling into the trap of ‘mistaking anarchy for freedom.’ This is a pitfall that Tansman himself always avoided.” As a friend of mine used to say, “those who only play for themselves end up by playing only to themselves”. And while the Darmstadt School of avant-garde composers garnered great success in the 1950s and 1960s, almost to the exclusion of the likes of Tansman, their influence today is, thankfully, in context. The lesson really is that there is room in music for every style but none should be at the expense of any other.

In the past I have reviewed 4 discs of Tansman’s piano music and one for violin and piano so I am well acquainted with his style, which I find much to my liking. His uncomplicated directness is hugely appealing and anyone who adores the music of Chopin will readily agree that after Chopin, as the Wikipedia article on him states “...Tansman may be the leading proponent of traditional Polish forms such as the polonaise and the mazurka…” When you listen to his music it is easy to see why he wrote in a letter that "it is obvious that I owe much to France, but anyone who has ever heard my compositions cannot have doubt that I have been, am and forever will be a Polish composer." In the same way Miklós Rózsa said about his music that though he had lived in several countries and spent much of his life in the USA, musically he had never left Hungary.

Charming and delightful are overused words and I readily admit I am guilty of it in my reviews. If anyone can suggest adequate alternatives I should be much obliged for it is difficult to find anything that can properly describe Tansman’s music better than them. His 11 Interludes from 1955 that kick off the CD are cases in point. They range from sounding like water dripping into a pool, creating a hauntingly beautiful musical picture via march-like tunes and those ethereal in nature, each one a miniature marvel.

Tansman’s Hommage à Arthur Rubinstein (another son of the town of Łódź) shows use of Polish folk themes. The first part is marked Tempo di Mazurka, followed by a brisk Toccata full of flourish that one can easily imagine being played by the great proponent of Chopin. His 2 pièces Hébraïques, with the extremely serious Invention followed by Berceuse juive, are among many works drawing on his Jewish heritage, which until the thirties had not played a role in his music. It was undoubtedly the rise of fascism that had made Tansman more aware of that heritage since prior to this both he and his family were non-practising Jews, though the fact that they were Jews made it imperative to leave his beloved second home of Paris. Identifying with the fate of Jews inspired him to write some deeply poignant works.

Tansman wrote his 4 Piano moods in 1944 and three are those types of pieces for which I am stumped to come up with better words to describe them than by the well-worn ‘charming’ and ‘delightful’. While the final piece is a fascinating venture into writing what the marking calls an Allegro meccanico, which bewitched me and made me want to play it repeatedly so effective does Tansman make it. There is more of this to be heard in his Prelude et Toccata in which the toccata is marked Allegro molto. Yet again the first of his 6 Caprices also has a manic air to it. Perhaps this was a phase Tansman was enjoying exploring in the 1940s since all three of these works come from that period. In the booklet, it says that these 5 pieces are ‘excerpts’, which is slightly misleading in that the five here are complete, we are just missing number 6. This is because only the first 7 bars of the sixth exist; even Tansman’s two daughters do not know what happened to the rest. They are all saturated in Tansman’s amazing ability to write perfectly formed miniatures of startling beauty and full of interest.

The penultimate work on this superb disc is Tansman’s Visit to Israel, a set of 10 mini portraits of places he went to on a visit there in 1958, finishing off with two folk tunes, though all are shot through with folk melodies. Like all Tansman’s piano music they are attractive and utterly beguiling. As it has been said of other works by other composers, there is not a note too many or too few in anything on this disc. If one can liken them to food then they are delicious and delectable ‘amuse-bouches’, after which the listener will feel totally satisfied. The Yemenite cradle song, which Yemeni Jews sing to their children to put them to sleep, I found particularly heart rending since it brought to mind a peace that those in Yemen today can only dream of.

The final piece is the longest on the disc. It is divided into eight contrasting sections but woven into a cohesive whole again, showing how deftly Tansman could treat his music and how beautiful he made it – each a true work of art. I felt a pang of sadness when the final note was played. I could have listened to much, much more from this composer whose humanity is evident in all his works. It was with such feelings that I read the last paragraph in the brochure again, about how in Europe at the time his “distinctly French neo-Classical style, characterised by lightness and spirituality, was no longer in vogue.” In fact, as Anthony Short points out, “it was anathema to the emerging Darmstadt School of composers, whose uncompromising views shaped the musical aesthetic of the 1950s and 1960s.” It seems incredible now to think that any musician would be prepared to see one form of music sacrificed on the altar of another when there is room and appetite for all genres. One could adapt the saying to read ‘listen and let listen.’

This disc was an absolute joy to listen to and will be welcomed by lovers of piano music everywhere. It is yet another project by the indomitable Giorgio Koukl. His musical interests have unearthed and brought into the spotlight music by many otherwise little-known composers, all of whom cry out to be heard. And thanks to musicians like him, such composers are finding new and well-deserved favour among an ever more sophisticated music public whose thirst for music new to them is, thankfully it seems, unquenchable. The sound is clear, the playing radiant and comes to us through the fingers of an artist of the highest integrity whose love and respect for the composer shines through every note.

Steve Arloff

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