About this Recording
8.573127 - TANSMAN, A.: Violin and Piano Music - Violin Sonata No. 2 / Sonata quasi una fantasia / Violin Sonatinas Nos. 1 and 2 / Fantaisie (Sahatçi, Koukl)
English  French 

Alexandre Tansman (1897–1986)
Music for Violin and Piano


Alexandre Tansman was born in Łódź in 1897 into a very musical family: various relatives of his studied with Anton Rubinstein, Eugène Ysaÿe and Arthur Schnabel. In early 1919, Tansman submitted three of his works, under three different pseudonyms, to the Polish National Composition Competition—and won the first three prizes. One of those works was the Romance in F sharp major (1918), whose harmonies recall to a certain extent early Scriabin and Szymanowski. Its music conjures two contrasting atmospheres, one expressive and fiery, the other more abstracted and gentle.

His success inspired him to move to Paris, where he settled in September 1919. He was soon fully involved in French cultural life, attending concerts and going to the theatre. He was later to write in his memoirs, Regards en arrière (Looking back), “Everything I heard in the way of music was new to me. Encountering Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky came as a profound shock, although at the same time confirming to me that my own language, which was springing intuitively from the same sources…was very much of its time.”

Tansman was fortunate enough to meet Ravel in person, and brought along his most recent compositions to that first meeting, at the home of Georges Mouveau, a designer at the Paris Opéra. As he recalled, “I played him my Mélodies japonaises, my Sept Préludes for piano and showed him my new Sonata for violin and piano. Ravel kept glancing approvingly at Mouveau…” Ravel was quickly won over by both the young composer’s personality and the originality and harmonic inventiveness of his compositions. He introduced Tansman to the conductor Vladimir Golschmann and to the firm that became his first publisher, éditions Demets, as well as to the most influential salons in Paris.

The Sonate No. 2 in D major, written between 1917 and 1919, is another fine example of the music Tansman composed before leaving Poland. More traditional in style than the Mélodies japonaises of 1918 and the Sept Préludes for piano of 1921, this sonata is still anchored in Slavic late-Romanticism. Its opening Allegro ma non troppo begins with an expressively chromatic violin phrase over an ornate piano accompaniment, both worthy of a young Szymanowski or Max Reger. The gentler, more diatonic second subject is supported by a more fluid accompaniment. Then the two themes are interwoven in rhapsodic manner before the movement draws to a tranquil end. The ternary Mélodie slave and the brief Intermezzo scherzando, a rapid and joyful moto perpetuo, were warmly received at the US premiere at Carnegie Hall in 1923, a performance given by the work’s dedicatee, violinist Bronisław Huberman. The Finale, which begins with a declamatory introduction, returns to the style of the first movement, with a resolute main theme and an impassioned second theme, before becoming calmer in a kind of development section. The ending features the two themes from the Allegro, now heard twice over and in reverse order.

The title of the Sonate quasi una fantasia (1924) might evoke Beethoven’s Opus 27. Tansman’s fantasia, however, is more focussed on exploring the sonorities of the violin than on formal invention. This sonata testifies to the composer’s increasing maturity as a musician, and is particularly notable for the unitary conception of its four movements, within which a number of common materials are circulated. It begins with a broad, lyrical violin phrase above a repetitive bitonal accompaniment, a tritone apart, and making extensive use of fourths. The dynamic increases and the polyphonic texture becomes richer before the music becomes more static and then comes to a halt on a G sharp pedal. A compulsively repeated B gradually establishes itself in the piano line, and leads to a second idea for the violin, this one gentler and using double stopping. The Scherzo begins with a riotous feast of sound, in music of changing metre, with a whirling theme of varied sonorities on the violin and an abundance of fourths on the piano. A second, songlike, subject in 3/4 then gives way to an assertive, obsessive third theme in 2/4. Purely rhythmical in character, the movement’s ending prefigures several similar passages in works to come. The violin melody that introduces the Andante features nine successive different sounds, giving an impression of atonality. Gradually, a number of elements heard earlier in the work are reintroduced (including harmonies, motifs based on fourths and bitonality). In the distance, the music comes to a standstill on the piano. A new, expressive theme is entrusted to the violin. The ending, with its violin harmonics and tremolos, as well as strings of fourths on the piano, is exquisitely poetic. The Finale begins slowly, as the piano plays in octaves in a tranquil atmosphere, with no trace of dissonance. The music of the Allegro giusto section is more relaxed and is optimistic in nature, with lively rhythms, forthright melodic lines and echoes of the work’s opening theme.

Composed in Paris in January 1925, the Sonatine [No. 1] was designed for either flute or violin, and piano. Better known in its flute version, this work in five short movements reveals a clear French influence in its transparency and concision. In the fluid opening Modéré, Tansman delights in combining a diatonic violin line with a very chromatic accompaniment. A sweet melody over piano ostinati serves as the central section. Towards the end, the clear, joyful sound of ringing bells leads to a calmer conclusion. The Intermezzo is an example of those miniatures in which Tansman excelled at creating a lyrical space with the minimum of elements, and the Fox-Trot represents his first incursion into the world of jazz. The Notturno begins with a solo violin line which develops towards a sustained climax by means of polyharmonies set upon solid bass lines. The Finale introduces an elegant phrase in E major above an ostinato rhythm; this line soon gives way, in a slower tempo, to the tranquil, modal inflections of a second tune more Slavic in nature. The work ends with a conclusion based on a gentler form of the first theme.

The Sonatine No. 2 was written in Nice in 1941 and is dedicated to Henri Temianka, first violin of the Paganini Quartet. Compared to the three sombre Ballades for piano [Naxos 8.573021] that date from the same period, while the composer was preparing to go into exile in the US, the work is quite bright and insouciant. Its three movements are played without a break. The music of the opening movement is a continuous well-spring of melody, with the violin playing very lyrically, arco throughout. The many changes of key signature have more to do with melodic juxtaposition than harmonic progression. The piano writing meanwhile abounds in double notes (thirds, sixths, fifths) in parallel motion. The slow movement is dominated by a four-note recurring motif on the violin, with a secondary berceuse-like idea. A brief recitative precedes the conclusion which takes up the four-note motif again and repeats it seven times. The finale has the vital qualities of a scherzo and creates a striking contrast. The light, alert play of the piano, the energy of the violin writing, its rather neo-Baroque rhythmical figures and its unusual formal structure (ABAB’coda) end in a less agitated conclusion, made up of the first five bars of the opening movement followed by the last nine of the second.

The Fantaisie (1963), dedicated to pianist Diane Andersen and violinist André Gertler, belongs to the composer’s final period. Commissioned by the Hans Kindler Foundation, it was first performed on 13 January 1964 in Washington by Robert Gerle (violin) and David Garvey (piano). In formal terms, this is a work in six linked movements of contrasting character but strongly unified motivically and harmonically. The Divertimento is fast-flowing and tonic, its refined sound resulting from the range of ways in which the violin is asked to play, and the articulation and attacks of the piano line. Its highly individual and freely inventive harmony is stretched to the limits of atonality, with the use of little clusters. The élégie develops an expressive violin phrase over a crystalline accompaniment in the upper range of the piano, a rocking motion of parallel sevenths with mysterious resonances. It ends with exactly the same music as the slow movement of the Sonatine No. 2, enhanced by a delightfully lyrical addition to the violin melody, entirely in harmonics. The subject of the Fuga presents atonal tendencies with its ten different notes, chromatic intervals and predominant tritones. It is set out according to the usual four entries on which four-part polyphony is constructed. The music quietens and the texture is reduced to two parts before a more stylistically free section is elaborated. The recapitulation begins with the subject in augmented values in the lower register of the piano, before a long pedal note is transformed into a coda of more expansive tempo. The Improvisazione is based on the fugue subject whose briefly heard opening also informs the tremolos of the violin cadenza. Other harmonic materials from the first two movements recur. The Canon is a cantabile piece in E major, while the Finale-Scherzo re-uses elements from the Divertimento, thereby echoing its expressive sonorities.

Gérald Hugon
English translation by Susannah Howe

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