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Penguin Guide, January 2009

With Jean-Marc Fessard the central performer in this collection, playing on bass clarinet as well as the regular instrument, this gives an attractive survey of Tansman’s music, most of it written when he was in wartime exile in the United States. There is an obvious influence from Stravinsky, both in these works and in the much earlier Triptyque for String Quartet of 1930. First-rate sound.

David L. Kirk
Fanfare, July 2008

Great cast, excellent sound, exciting performance!

Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, January 2008

Tansman is beginning to receive his due from record companies and in this respect the symphonic cycle looms large. But Tansman wrote highly distinctively for chamber forces as well and the fruits of his work for chamber music with clarinet are presented here.

Actually that’s not quite true. The disc’s title implies an all-clarinet recital but perhaps the most well known of the works here, Triptyque, a masterpiece, is written for string quartet.

Nevertheless the performances of all the works here are most persuasive and make a fine case for Tansman’s mastery of the chamber medium. Musique for clarinet and string quartet is the most recent and dates from 1982, four years before Tansman’s death. It’s rich in polyphony and has a kind of crepuscular lyricism that fuses Franco-Polish influences to rewarding effect. The central movement has a lightly worn neo-classicism and feints toward fugato, or pizzicato string lacing add colour and richness to the writing. The clarinet lines are especially fertile, not least in the fluid and quiet ending of the finale.

Musique à Six was written for clarinet, string quartet and piano and dates from 1977. This is a more directly wistful piece and the violins’ initially torpid expressivity promises rich rewards to come, almost all realised. There are some fizzing things in the Intermezzo—marked, of all things, Perpetuum pianissimo. The liquid vitality of the writing, the trademark fugal feints, and the tenor of the music perhaps suggest Prokofiev and maybe even Martinů in its athletic vibrancy. The Notturno is warmly moving, the lyric lines stretched wide and frequently supported by the piano’s richly romantic and cushioned chording. And the folkloric hues of the Cappriccio alla polacca are immensely approachable. The finale’s wistful depth sounds strongly reminiscent of the opening movement’s emotive remove and it lends the work a satisfyingly cyclical shape.

Seven years earlier, in 1970, Tansman wrote Trois Pièces for clarinet, harp, and string quartet. Readers will note that Naxos programme all these works in reverse chronological order. Once again Tansman does nothing to challenge orthodoxies or to promote intellectualism, academicism or any other dreaded-ism. He simply writes superbly crafted, lyrically attractive, often technically demanding but listener-sympathetic music. His Perpetuum mobile writing is to the fore once again; the shifting lines and resonant, brilliant contoured patterns ever exciting. This is a piece rich in contrast and vitality and colour. There’s also a rather Martinů-like ragtime element in the Lento cantabile finale.

The Triptyque is by forty years the earliest work and was written in 1930. It’s sometimes to be heard in the arrangement for string orchestra though I always prefer the quartet version. It’s a brilliant neo-classical work, exuberant, energetic, a little analogous once again with Martinů. The sweet counter melodic statements of the central Andante are full of warmth but this is nevertheless a well argued and structured work. The central lyric section of the finale, for example, is well balanced and richly contrastive. Rhythmically Tansman is on top form. It’s not a work that one could suggest bore any similarity with say, Alan Bush’s Dialectic, another quartet masterpiece from around the same time. Tansman is sunnier, less ambiguous, and less intense. But he handles the form with confidence and the results are life affirming.

An excellent disc then—well played and well engineered and with good notes. A feather in the cap for Tansman admirers.

David Blomenberg
MusicWeb International, August 2007

It’s heartening to see that artists are giving Alexandre Tansman’s music greater representation in the world of recordings. In the past year, several discs of Tansman’s music have made appearances and have been reviewed on this site, from his orchestral music to works for flute.

In other works that I’d heard and reviewed, it was relatively easy to hear Tansman’s affinity for light music and the popular music of the time—the foxtrot and other dances, and aspects of his symphonic music reflected the busy urban bustle of the 20s. In these works here presented, the influence of Debussy and Ravel—the latter being a direct support to Tansman’s work—moves to the forefront. Born in Poland, he spent much of his creative life in Paris, where he died in 1986.

It appears that Tansman had an affinity for wind instruments. In addition to the works recorded here, there are various works for flute and piano (a sonatine is available on Acte Préalable AP0137), there are various works for bassoon. There are nine symphonies to his credit, as well as eight string quartets. He also wrote in collaboration with Milhaud, Stravinsky and Schoenberg.

Most of the works here are rather late compositions, including the piece that opens up the disc, the Musique for clarinet and string quartet, which was his last chamber work. All but the last work on this disc consist of quick scherzo-like sections framed by slow movements. The Canzona of the Musique of 1982 settles strangely like nightfall; the clarinet is the undisputed center of attention, with a long melodic line under which the string quartet provides support. The Scherzo middle movement sounds very much like the work of Bacewicz, another contemporary Polish composer whose music has seen a resurgence in recordings of late. The cello’s pizzicati drives the rhythm along while the rest of the quartet and the clarinet scrabble for a foothold. The movement seems to find its foothold in a sound that recalls traditional Polish dances, but seen through the lens of Ravel, then a brief episode where the material is treated fugally. There is a pause before the clarinet’s narrative, which launches the ensemble into an energetic coda. It’s a lot to pack into a four-minute passage without sounding overloaded and busy, but the piece shows poise and humour.

It also doffs its figurative hat to the longer and earlier Musique à Six that follows. Again, we have a slow, nocturnal opening movement that has a quiet uneasy sense of suspension that fans of Morton Feldman’s music would appreciate. Sparse chords from the piano punctuate the fluid strings that stay in their upper register. The clarinet again takes the role of narrator. With the first movement titled Preludio and the following movement an intermezzo, the weight of emphasis rests, as with the Musique of 1982, on the fast movement, which has a specific echo in the fast movement of that later piece. Again, we have a sound that is reminiscent of Polish folk tunes and Bacewicz’s chamber works. After a wonderful Notturno movement—of which Feldman fans again should take note—the piece moves more overtly into Polish folk music before ending on a slow postlude that brings back the nocturnal elements of the prelude. A greatly enjoyable work.

The harp opens the three pieces latest composition on this disc, but again, the clarinet takes over as main mouthpiece for the ensemble. Both of the slow movements in this piece have a wonderfully uneasy nocturnal beauty. The ensemble is wonderfully well balanced and the recording aesthetic is warmly intimate. The last movement begins as a slow movement to mirror the first, but ends as a rousing quick movement.

To fill out the disc we have the last—and earliest—work, which the liner notes mention is one of Tansman’s most often performed works. The Triptyque for string quartet has less of the unsettled strangeness that permeates the later pieces and more drive. It begins with a relatively short Allegro that has snatches of folk music and bustles along, but, as with the other works on this disc, Tansman’s focus is on the slow movements. In the andante, the viola begins with a statement of the thematic material as the rest of the ensemble makes separate entrances. The closing finale movement is, as with some of the other quick movements in the other pieces on this disc, perpetuum mobile, driven by the lower strings. The Quatuor Elysée plays this piece with great poise and sensitivity.

Overall, a greatly enjoyable disc, well-recorded and performed. I certainly am looking forward to further recordings of works by this composer. For those who enjoy Stravinsky and Ravel, as well as the work of Milhaud, they certainly wouldn’t go wrong in giving this disc a listen. More please!

David Denton
David's Review Corner, May 2007

Alexander Tansman was born in Poland in 1897, but apart from a period of exile in the United States in the Second World War, he spent almost all of his mature life in France where his music followed the stylistic qualities of the post-Impressionists. He was to enjoy a highly productive career as a composer on both sides of the Atlantic, many of his later scores commissioned by French Radio. The present disc covers much that he wrote for the clarinet in a solo role, the first three coming from the latter part of his life—he died at the age of 89—with the Triptyque for string quartet funded by the famous American benefactress, Elisabeth Sprague Coolidge. Tansman was at his most persuasive when writing busy music with a particular affinity to the perpetuum mobile. Between these hectic moments you can recognise the influence of Roussel and Poulenc, the music becoming slinky and seducing the ear. Maybe it is not music that finds a place in your memory at first acquaintance, so start with the Triptyque, which has that driving rhythmic pattern that was to become the basis for minimalism. The smooth music ideally suites the French clarinet tone of Jean-Marc Fessard, his centre of the note intonation and dexterity making the best possible case for the music. He has splendid partners in the Quatuor Elysee, which plays with admirable unanimity, and if the Paris recording does not profess internal definition, it is still very pleasing.

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