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Henri TOMASI (1901-1971)
Complete Solo Piano Works
Emilie Capulet (piano)
rec. July 2017-December 2018, University of West London.
CALLIOPE CAL2069 [2 CDs: 87:00]

Tomasi was born and brought up in Marseille by a family who were from Corsica. This is the very same Mediterranean island which was known to the ancient Greeks as Cyrnos. This was a composer who wrote more than handful of operas. Later - and earlier - there is a host of eminently imaginative works including the Guitar Concerto (1966) written in tribute to murdered Lorca and taken up by Alexandre Lagoya, the Camus-inspired Retour à Tipasa (1966) and the Symphonie du Tiers Monde (1968) (review ~ review).

This double CD of his complete works for solo piano presents the adventurous listener with 37 tracks accompanied by a 4000-word booklet. The Paysages (1930) are little pieces, each under five minutes. In these, gentle Debussian swirls alternate with breezes both warm and chilly (‘Marines’) and gentle graces (Danse Profane et danse sacré). Interestingly, Tomasi wrote his own Danses Sacrèes et Profanes in 1960. This orchestral piece was championed by the ORTF and conducted by Pierre-Michel Le Conte. ‘Clairière’ seems to depict a summer morning. In this sense it is comparable with Billy Mayerl in his most artistic moments. The ‘Forêt (Chants d'oiseaux)’ radiates a fantastic image alive with birdsong.

From a year later comes the little Fantoches - a delicate balletic dance on tiptoes. Dance puts in another appearance in Menuet from the mid-1920s. This is not antique in flavour but sweetly tonal and sentimental. Dart forward to the mid-1930s and Tomasi, in Tarentelle, sets running a spider-quick scuttle and stiff strut. The two sets of Pièces Brèves are from 1929. These six little miniatures with fanciful titles (a gift of Tomasi) are polished artistic little gems which are only little in terms of duration, not in terms of fantasy. They are a sort of blend of Debussy and Chopin. ‘Espiègleries’ flits and butterflies delightfully. Thirty years later and we reach the mid-1960s with Danseuses de Degas. Its harmonic world is a little tougher but still has charm, if heard as if through a mottle-darkened glass.

The group of gems called Le Coin de Claudinet (1948) might just as easily conjure up the world of The Little Prince (Antoine de Saint Exupery). They are intelligently realised miniatures of a world of idealised childhood. Tomasi’s monodrama, the “drame lyrique en 1 acte” (1959) Le Silence de la Mer is represented by Berceuse de la Belle et la Bête. Here is the most toughly complex and original piece so far with a palette decoupled from Tomasi’s accustomed tonality. It fits the subject, the novel by ‘Vercors’ set in the Nazi occupation of France. The music is not violent but haunted and stony. CD 1 ends with Le Poème de Cyrnos (1918) in heroic-epic style where the score’s episodic pattern does no harm to the exalted effect on the listener. The excellent notes (in French and English with photos of Tomasi) by Emilie Capulet herself, proclaim a depth of knowledge about this music and their composer. These tell us that Tomasi wrote a piece called Cyrnos for two pianos a few years later and this in turn became an identically titled tone poem for piano and orchestra in 1929. This latter work was taken up by Karl Diessel and the ORTF orchestra conducted by Heinz Zeebe in June 1964. The two-piano piece can be heard on an Indesens disc. The Cyrnos offered here is a different pices, written in 1918. The piece has never been published and I understand that the manuscript is in the possession of Emilie Capulet who has edited it and here gives not only the first recordnig but also the first performance of the piece. There are more than a few moments when Cyrnos seems to be a counterpart to Ravel's Rapsodie Espagnole - a sort of Rapsodie Corse. This is gloriously brilliant writing given a recording and performance to match. Cyrnos is, by the way, dedicated to Tomasi’s wife, Odette Camp (1909-1979).

We then come to Féérie Laotienne (1939), which appears on what amounts to a half- hour bonus disc (CD 2). Tomasi had a weakness for asian/pacific subjects and ambience. It’s a far from uncommon ‘malady’ among French composers and when they succumb the listener usually benefits. For example, quite apart from the present solo piano work Tomasi wrote Chants Laotiens in 1933 and a ballet emerged to a scenario by Jose Bruyc. This was later arranged as a tone poem and the present ten- section solo piano suite. Each section here is separately tracked. In this connection we should also note his Tam-Tam tone poem which can be tracked down in a historical recording on a Dutton CD. The work was also broadcast by the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic and Jean Fournet. This composer’s worklist also includes an exotic Pacific piece called Noa-Noa for voices and chamber orchestra.

The present piano cycle in part reads/sounds as a series of predominantly very short postcards. This is a Laos filtered through the eyes and sensibilities of a French tourist. At first, it has little in it that feels strange or otherworldly. This gradually changes. The implication of authenticity can later be heard, for example, in the clashes of the ‘Scherzo pour une fête de nuit’. Tomasi here shakes off Western sensibilities. The transition is almost fully achieved in the ‘Pantomime’ and ‘Danse des Sorciers’. When we come to ‘Offrande aux Dieux’ Tomasi takes on the persona of a mystic; similarly in the tolling bells and gongs of ‘Les Cercles Magiques’. The longest piece (tenth and last) chimes repetitively and then intones swathes of sound and adventures. Our hero now seems to have ‘gone native’ looking back to his early tourist observations before being beguiled and swept into religious rites. Tomasi starts almost as a Ketèlbey, promptly progressing to a Holbrooke¸ then a Messiaen then a Charpentier (Etudes Karnatiques). Tomasi, while by no means in quite the same camp, can be placed with Colin Macphee and a phase of Benjamin Britten (Prince of the Pagodas). These two are listed for contrast but Debussy is a little closer in kinship of expression in his ‘Pagodes’ in arrangements by Grainger and Caplet.

This is a well projected, shaped and performed set which comes to us in a single width case. The notes are extremely well done and the recording is irreproachable. I hope that it will prepare the ground for much more Tomasi. We need a collection – in fact several of them - of his orchestral music. Let’s have his early symphonies, his three symphonic poems Cyrnos for orchestra with piano (1929), Vocero (1932) and a newly done Tam-Tam (1931). Then there’s the 1936 Games of Geishas for wind quintet, harp and piano and Noa-Noa for male voice, mixed choir and small orchestra (1957).
Rob Barnett

CD 1

Paysages (1930) [11:28]
- 1. Marine (Mouettes) [3:56]
- 2. Clairière (Matin d'été) [3:00]
- 3. Forêt (Chants d'oiseaux) [4:32]

4. Fantoches (1931) [2:11]

5. Menuet (1924) [2:39]

6. Tarentelle (1936) [3:52]

Pièces Brèves - Suite 1 (1929) [5:49]
- 7. Et s'il revenait un jour... [2:00]
- 8. Menuet [2:08]
- 9. Le lied que chante mon cœur [1:41]

Pièces Brèves - Suite 2 (1929) [5:56]
- 10. Parade [1:59]
- 11. Air à Danser [2:16]
- 12. Espiègleries [1:41]

- 13. Danseuses de Degas (1964) [2:26]

Le Coin de Claudinet (1948) [6:46]
- 14. Réveil du Petit Soldat [0:35]
- 15. Poupée Triste [0:36]
- 16. Berceuse pour la Petite Cousine Arabe [0:33]
- 17. Le Petit Cheval [0:30]
- 18. Le Clown et l'Ecuyère [0:36]
- 19. Le Petit Jésus et sa Maman [0:33]
- 20. Berger, bergère (Santons) [0:29]
- 21. La Boîte à Musique [0:40]
- 22. Concert des Petits Anges Musiciens [0:32]
- 23. La Berceuse à Claudinet [0:40]
- 24. Les Rois Mages (Santons) [0:30]
- 25. Les Tambourinaires (Santons) [0:32]

- 26. Berceuse de la Belle et la Bête (Le Silence de la Mer) (1929) [4:42]

- 27. Le Poème de Cyrnos (1918) [10:22]

CD 2

Féérie Laotienne (1939) [30:52]

- 1. Entrée [0:25]
- 2. Cortège et Danse [5:15]
- 3. Scherzo pour une fête de nuit [4:30]
- 4. Invocation à la lune [3:41]
- 5. Pantomime [1:37]
- 6. Danse des sorciers [2:30]
- 7. Cette lune nous gêne [0:18]
- 8. Offrande aux Dieux [2:20]
- 9. Les Cercles Magiques [1:08]
- 10. Final [9:08]

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