About this Recording
8.573021 - TANSMAN, A.: Piano Music - Ballades Nos. 1-3 / Arabesques / Suite dans le style ancien / 5 Impressions / 8 Cantilenes (Reyes)
English  French 

Alexandre Tansman (1897–1986)
Suite dans le style ancien • Arabesques • Cinq Impressions • Ballades Nos 1–3 • Eight Cantilenas


When the young Polish composer Alexandre Tansman, born on 12 June 1897 in Łódź, arrived in Paris in 1919, he could not possibly have imagined that his works would soon feature on the programmes of all the city’s major concert societies. Before long, however, he had joined the ranks of the most prominent French and other European musicians of the time, alongside such figures as Ravel, Schmitt, Roussel, Milhaud, Honegger, Stravinsky, Casella and Bartók. By November 1925 his renown had reached the other side of the Atlantic, with the American premières of his Danse de la sorcière (New York Philharmonic/Mengelberg) and Sinfonietta No 1 (Boston Symphony/Koussevitzky). As well as Koussevitzky, conductors such as Golschmann, Monteux and Stokowski also began to take a serious interest in the young composer’s work. At Koussevitzky’s invitation, Tansman undertook his first tour of the United States in 1927–28, at the same time as Ravel and Bartók too were first touring the country. It was during this time that he met George Gershwin and Charlie Chaplin, to the latter of whom he dedicated his Second Piano Concerto, which had just been given its première by Koussevitzky in Boston. In 1932–33 Tansman became the first Western composer to undertake a real world tour. As he was travelling to New York he discovered that Toscanini was to conduct one of his works. The years leading up to the Second World War, however, saw an end to the programming of his music in certain parts of Europe.

A French citizen since 1 June 1938, Tansman was eligible for military service when war broke out in September 1939. Because of his linguistic skills, he was assigned to the propaganda ministry, where he worked under the writers Jean Giraudoux and Georges Duhamel. There in Paris, amid the air raids, Tansman composed the first two collections of his Intermezzi. His second daughter was born in February 1940, as a result of which he was allowed to leave his war work. On 12 June he and his family left Paris and, on Chaplin’s advice, settled soon afterwards near Nice, a town with an American consulate, making it, in principle, easier for him to communicate with the US. It was while living in Nice that he finished his third and fourth collections of Intermezzi. Having been written during times of such uncertainty, the Intermezzi [Naxos 8.572266] are a form of intimate musical diary of a composer whose life was then divided between two continents, before he went into exile in the United States.

Written in 1929, the Suite dans le style ancien is composed in the Neo-baroque style so fashionable in the 1920s and 30s. Unlike Tansman’s very personal Second Sonata, which dates from the same year, there is no hint of a Polish influence on this work—it is instead a perfect reflection of the instrumental forms and the dances of a Baroque suite. This harking back to the past by Tansman was probably more of a nod to the prevailing musical climate than a genuine desire to take a new stylistic direction, given that he saw this phenomenon thereafter as a “passing fancy”. Although the rhythmic language of the Suite is, for the most part, authentically Baroque in nature, some of its harmonic inflections lift it away from the original style. Tonal unity reigns in the first four movements, all of which end in E major, while the last two follow a different path. The Entrée is based on the specific dotted rhythm that characterises the French ouverture as created by Lully and taken up by Bach, but Tansman discards the central fugal section. Both the Sarabande and Gavotte are dances commonly found in the Baroque suite, while the Choral fugué is a chorale melody, used as the subject of a fugue, initially set out in four parts. The writing develops from linear polyphony towards a larger-scale chordal conclusion. The Aria provides a moment of lyricism, rising to a dynamic peak, and the Toccata has a rhythmic urgency that anticipates the composer’s Triptyque for string orchestra (or quartet; see Naxos 8.570235). Tansman performed the première of his Suite dans le style ancien on 7 November 1929 at the Salle du Conservatoire de Bruxelles. The work was dedicated to a Polish student of Egon Petri, Karol Szreter (1898–1933), who had performed Tansman’s Sonata rustica in Berlin in December 1926.

The Arabesques were written in September 1930, the same month in which Tansman also composed the Triptyque and had his Sonatine transatlantique premièred in Berlin by Walter Gieseking. This collection is dedicated to Janine Cools, daughter of his publisher Eugene Cools, director of Éditions Max Eschig. Here, the poetic nature of each piece is determined by its genre (intermezzo, mazurka, nocturne, fanfare, lullaby and dance). The Intermezzo (the earliest such piece he wrote) is an intimate piece based on a descending figure, while the Mazurka’s opening motif recalls that of the fourth work in his first set of mazurkas (1918–28). The Nocturne takes on an almost Scriabin-like aspect with its final chord formed of superimposed fourths in tonal suspension. In the Fanfare in C major the right hand plays powerful, accentuated chords sustained throughout in the bass by a C-G fifth. The Berceuse, which is enlivened by subtle dissonances and the dotted rhythms of a sicilienne, ends in the unexpected key of C sharp minor. The final Danza is joyous and rhythmic. Tansman gave the première of Arabesques in September 1931 at London’s Wigmore Hall.

The Cinq Impressions were written in Paris in October and November 1934, after the composer’s world travels, and given their première by Janine Cools. The magnificent opening piece, Calme, with its warm harmonies and flowing inner lines, contrasts with the very lively Burlesque, with its interplay of brief musical figures, variety of different attacks, rapid oppositions of registers and bitonal superimpositions. Triste is a snapshot based on a four-note motif which, featuring tritones, chromaticism and a sudden F sharp major ending, expresses an intensely felt state of mind, but in the manner of twentieth-century humanism rather than Romanticism. The following Animé, cast in tripartite form, is the most traditional piece in the cycle. Three layers of sound go to make up this joyful work: a melody based on a four-note cell, a sinuous, generally chromatic, middle line, and an accompaniment in minor sevenths. The final Nocturne marks a return to concision; night, one of Tansman’s favourite themes, is the time when our senses are particularly heightened and attentive to distant, external happenings, but also to our own inner worlds.

The Ballades are among Tansman’s most personal piano compositions in terms of originality of language, formal organisation and idiom. They were written in Nice in February/March 1941, a particularly prolific period, during which he also wrote the Intermezzi (vols III/IV; see Naxos 8.572266) and the Fifth String Quartet, among others. Like the latter, the Ballades are overlaid with tragic tones, reflecting the troubled times in which he was living as he prepared to go into exile in the USA.

Mrs Randall-MacIver, to whom Ballade No 1 is dedicated, was an American citizen of French origin who acted as financial guarantor for the composer and his family when they sought refuge in the United States. Tansman gave the work’s first performance in Nice on 20 April 1941. It begins with a sinuous, almost atonal melody harmonised by chords in superimposed fourths. The music becomes calmer and for a moment is polarised on B. The middle section, Allegro molto, an elegant, supple piece of piano writing, with a sense of complicit alternation between the left and right hands, reaches a high point, before returning to the opening elements. A long closing section marked Andante sostenuto provides contrast with its simplicity, naive harmonic structure (alternating between the tonic and the dominant), almost nursery-rhyme-like inflections and inner chromaticisms which are more plaintive than genuinely suspenseful.

Ballade No 2 is dedicated to Beate Bolm and her husband Adolph, a dancer and choreographer who was at one point part of Dyagilev’s Ballets russes. It opens in sombre tones with a slow section resembling an improvisation, in which a dotted-rhythm four-note motif is played at the same time as a shimmering, chromatic descending figure leading inexorably down to D flat. The Allegro molto sets off with a march-like motif, against a bitonal background. The music becomes both more dramatic and more chromatic, before a period of calm prefigures a resolute ending and fiery coda.

Ballade No 3, written in February 1941 and first performed by the composer in Chicago in 1942, has a multi-sectional structure, making it the most developed of the three. Dramatic, jerky chords introduce the Andante comodo in highly individual style with its tightly controlled layering of harmonic materials of comparable construction (fourths, seconds, clusters, etc). Melodic linearity is dodged and replaced by moving patterns that travel by as if through a stormy landscape. The Allegro scherzando begins with music that is rhythmic but very light. After a pedal point, the playful nature of the scherzo comes to the fore. The Andante sostenuto allows dissonance to roam freely, much to our listening pleasure. The scherzo music returns for a moment (Vivo) with allusions to the opening section, before taking an almost diabolical turn (Presto mecanico). The coda (Presto) is a mellow moto perpetuo in semiquavers.

The Eight Cantilenas, dedicated to Arthur Rubinstein, were written in November 1949 in homage to Johann Sebastian Bach. Tansman always revered the imposing figure of Bach and his music, but here his intention is not so much to imitate his predecessor’s turns of phrase, even in the Arioso and Fuga, but to salute the universal nature of the reflective, meditative content of the great man’s music. The result is eight pared-down, highly stylised pieces. In the Prélude (and its note-for-note repeat, the Postlude), as in the other pieces, the composer uses a piano idiom notable for its wide intervals to stamp his own harmonic personality, one free of any tension, on the music. We should bear in mind that this pensive rather than dreamy collection is a contemporary of the symphonic oratorio Isaïe, le Prophète (Isaiah the Prophet, 1949–50) in which the composer was totally absorbed at the time, on both a philosophical and a human level. The Choral I, in the form of an interlude for wind octet, would also become the sixth movement of that oratorio. Tansman gave the première of the Cantilenas on French Radio in Paris on 12 July 1950, almost two centuries to the day after the death of Bach himself (28 July 1750).

Gérald Hugon
English translation by Susannah Howe

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