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Patrick Hanudel
American Record Guide, September 2011

Conscious eclecticism did not fully emerge until the mid-20th Century, but musicians who crossed geographical borders rarely resisted the confluence of where they came from and where they were going. One of history’s most striking examples is Alexandre Tansman (1897–1986), a Polish-born Jewish virtuoso pianist and composer whose polytonal thinking proved too radical for a country that had not yet heard Debussy. In 1919, after completing law studies at the University of Warsaw, he moved to Paris, where he was encouraged by Ravel and Stravinsky and admired by Les Six. In a modernist answer to Chopin, whom he adored, the young Pole fused the mazurka and the polonaise with French neo-classicism—and in his spare time he wrote jazz under a pseudonym. He also performed often, including with Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony. During World War II, as the Nazis set up a government in France, he fled with his family to Los Angeles, where he became friends with Schoenberg and wrote six film scores, one of which was nominated for an Academy Award. After the war, Tansman returned to Paris, only to find that the city had moved on without him. While many European capitals sizzled with the sounds of the avant-garde, the aging composer remained true to his philosophy, quietly creating works that, if no longer shocking, were still profoundly individual in their materials and expression. Here, French soloist and Brussels Royal Conservatory clarinet professor Jean-Marc Fessard and Orchestre National de France oboist Laurent Decker team up with the Silesian Chamber Orchestra of Poland and their conductor for a concert of Tansman’s orchestral music from the postwar period. The Clarinet Concerto (1957) is recorded here for the first time. Tansman wrote it for the famous French clarinetist Louis Cahuzac, who premiered it two years afterward at the age of 79, one year before he died in a motorcycle accident. Inside the standard form and length (three movements, 18 minutes) are elements of Bach, Stravinsky, and folk music, all balanced in a colorful orchestral soup. The next two pieces look backward and forward even further. The Concertino for oboe, clarinet, and strings (1952) and the Six Movements for Strings (1963) have transparent writing and a wealth of contrapuntal devices that invite comparison to the baroque orchestral suite. Even so, each work is shot through with pungent Gallic dissonance, brooding Slavic passages, jazz references, and romantic cyclicism. The performances are enthusiastic and sincere…Fessard has an excellent soloist personality, competing well against Tansman’s large orchestra, and he has the requisite amount of fingers and expressive awareness…Decker…boasts a beautifully clear timbre and the first-rate phrasing and technique to go with it. He holds his own with Fessard and his big tone, even if he cannot pull him into his own sculpted soundscape. The Silesian Chamber Orchestra plays with professionalism, authority, and superb musicianship, proving once again that Eastern European ensembles are just as skilled as their more famous Western counterparts.

MusicWeb International, June 2011

This is now the sixth CD published by Naxos given over entirely to the music of Polish-born composer Aleksander Tansman, and the second of his clarinet works—a disc of chamber works for the instrument was well received here. In a sense, in fact, this is a further volume of the same—the Silesian Chamber Orchestra consists of only twelve strings, and all three works featured here were written for chamber orchestra.

The Clarinet Concerto is dedicated to the celebrated French clarinettist Louis Cahuzac (1880–1960), who gave its premiere in 1959. The first of three movements, marked Introduction and Allegro, opens very laggardly but springs to life with the entrance of the clarinet. The highlight of the work is the slow second movement, a short, very lyrical Arioso, which features a fleeting but beautiful duet with the oboe. Throughout the movement the orchestra is very subdued, and in fact is silent for the opening of the finale, which begins unusually with a cadenza for the clarinet, before launching into a jaunty, almost klezmer-like Danza Popolare, played Vivace with some virtuosic demands made of the soloist. Alas, the work ends all too soon.

The clarinet-oboe duo idea of the Concerto’s final movement is revisited with élan in the six-movement neo-Classical-cum-neo-Baroque Concertino, which was written in 1952, the year Tansman’s wife was diagnosed with the cancer that eventually killed her. On the whole, the music of the Concertino betrays little of the emotional turmoil Tansman must have been feeling, beginning with the opening Poulenc-like Overture, which is bursting with sunshine. The second movement, marked Andante sostenuto, is more chordally mysterious than downcast, and it soon yields to a Molto vivace Scherzo which reprises the jollity of the Overture. Tansman’s true frame of mind is perhaps revealed at last in the fourth movement, which is a slow Elegy written—markedly?—for strings alone. The Elegy is followed by a Canon, which starts off with solo strings extending the lugubrious mood, before the clarinet and oboe finally reappear, albeit both wistful—only for them to stop suddenly and the Elegy return to moving effect for the final two minutes for strings only. Yet for the brief finale, marked Allegro deciso, optimistic normality is resumed and the music picks up first the mood, and then the theme of the Overture.

One surprising fact about both the Concerto and the Concertino is that this is the first time they have been recorded—a shame on clarinettists and music labels everywhere, but credit to Naxos and the performers on this CD for recognising this fine music and recording it for posterity.

The Six Movements for Strings was premiered in 1963. The title is a little misleading—as the liner notes explain, these are not six independent pieces bound together to make an opus, but “six movements that together form a cycle whose strong sense of unity derives from a series of deftly conceived internal relationships.” The work begins enigmatically, with an Introduction marked Andante misterioso, and segues into an Allegro giocoso that is muscly, brisk and often tonally nebulous, this latter a recurring theme of the work as a whole. The short Dirge is less pessimistic and more colourful than its title suggests. The Perpetuum mobile third movement, marked Vivo con fuoco, is a firecracker of a piece, full of virtuosic techniques, driving rhythms and more polytonality. The riddles of the Introduction return for the spooky Intermezzo, which is followed by a pressing Scherzino in which tonality is yet again obfuscated. The last movement of this superb work—modernist in many ways, yet still attractive to the general ear—is an exciting chromatic Fugue, which brings the piece to a satisfying, and once again sudden, end.

In the Six Movements the Silesian Chamber Orchestra under Mirosław Błaszczyk get a well-deserved turn in the limelight. The Orchestra was founded by Polish conductor Karol Stryja in 1981, with members drawn from the Silesian Philharmonic, and it is fitting that they gave this sterling performance, their first for Naxos, in the Karol Stryja Hall in Katowice, where Stryja died in 1998. Laurent Decker and especially Jean-Marc Fessard—who was also the clarinettist on Naxos 8.570235 (review link above)—likewise deserve praise for their own fine performances.

The quality of sound is excellent, the booklet nicely detailed, and the picture on the cover is…the picture on the cover. A quality disc for a quality composer.

David Hurwitz, June 2011

Alexandre Tansman’s range of styles makes him difficult to pigeon-hole. The Clarinet Concerto begins like the prelude to Debussy’s Pelléas but continues with sinuous, chromatic melodic material. On the other hand, the Concertino (which is actually longer than the concerto) is rhythmic and neo-classical, a bit like one of Martinů’s concerto grosso-type works. The Six Movements are spiky and dissonant, quasi-Bartók, but melodic. All of these pieces were composed in the period from 1952–63.

The performances are quite good. Both wind soloists have attractive timbres and the strings play crisply and cleanly…

Bob McQuiston
Classical Lost and Found, May 2011

Over the past couple of years, we’ve recommended several orchestral works of Polish composer Alexandre Tansman (1897–1986...and the selections on this new release from Naxos are noteworthy additions. All three were written after he returned to Paris from Los Angeles, where he’d taken refuge during World War II (1939–1945). The two concertante pieces are world premiere recordings, and none too soon as they’re some of his most sophisticated, heartfelt music.

The clarinet concerto from 1957 is in three movements. The first one is of slow-fast-slow design with pensive outer parts, which include some richly appointed melodic writing for the soloist, as well as a quirky motif [track-1, beginning at 02:42] somewhat like one in Debussy’s (1862–1918) First Rhapsody for Clarinet and Orchestra (1911). They surround a sprightly central allegro section with a neoclassical economy of means recalling Stravinsky (1882–1971) of the early 1900s.

The lovely arioso that follows seems to be an afterthought to the preceding movement, and serves to introduce the concluding one, which begins with a soaring cadenza for the clarinet. The orchestra then launches into an engaging folkish dance with slightly sinister connotations [track-3, beginning at 01:32]. Soloist and tutti wriggle about in an engaging manner, and then the concerto ends matter-of-factly on a positive note.

The concertino for oboe, clarinet and strings composed in 1952 is “polystylistic,” and deviates considerably from the usual concerto structure. In six movements, it comes off more like a divertimento or serenade from classical times. The infectious opening overture [track-4], flighty scherzo [track-6], and fugal “car-horn” finale [track-9] have an appealing neoclassical brusqueness, anticipating Martinů’s (1890–1959) oboe concerto of three years later (1955).

The pastoral dialogue [track-5] for the soloists is quite impressionistic, while the two elegies [tracks-7 & 8] are moving passacaglia-like laments right out of the Baroque. They may reflect the composer’s state of mind over his wife’s having been recently diagnosed with what turned out to be terminal cancer.

The disc concludes with Tansman’s Six Movements for Strings from 1962–63, which could be considered the Polish counterpart of Swiss composer Frank Martin’s (1890–1974) five Études for String Orchestra (1955–56). The Tansman opens forebodingly, but suddenly comes to life with colorful polytonal, highly chromatic passages. A subdued dirge and then a virtuosic tour de force in the form of a scurrying rhythmic “perpetuum mobile” (PM) follow.

The piece concludes with an airy intermezzo, catchy syncopated pizzicato-laced scherzo, and fugal finale having thematic elements harkening back to PM. The closing measures [track-15, beginning at 04:17] resemble the opening of Ernest Bloch’s (1880–1959) Concerto Grosso No. 1 (1924–25).

Clarinetist Jean-Marc Fessard is superb, at times producing a burnished auburn tone that’s to die for [track-1, beginning at 01:32]. Oboist Laurent Decker is an equally talented accomplice in the concertino, and both receive magnificent support from conductor Miroslaw Blaszczyk and the Silesian Chamber Orchestra. The latter go on to give a performance of Six Movements…which raises the bar for today’s string ensembles.

…the Polish audio engineers triumph again, giving us immaculately clean, well balanced recordings. The soundstage projected is just the right size and in the ideally warm, reverberant acoustic of Karol Stryia Hall, Katowice, Poland. The soloists are perfectly captured, and the string tone is very natural with only an occasional hint of grain. Interesting repertoire and superb sound make this a must for modern music buffs.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, April 2011

Born in Poland in 1897, Alexander Tansman found exile in the United States during the Second World War, but spent the remainder of his mature life in France where his music embraced the stylistic qualities of post-Impressionists. The Clarinet Concerto dates from 1957 and occupies a position where melodic invention, jazzy rhythms and creamy central movements had become the trademark of Poulenc. The Concertino dates from five years earlier, and while there is vivacity, there is also considerable sadness that reflected the discovery that his wife had terminal cancer. That grief resurfaced in the Six Movements for Strings completed in 1963, the second movement, Dirge, being a reflection on the funeral rite in its sombre mood. Each of the movements can stand alone without any significant joining thread between them. Jean-Marc Fessard, who has already recorded a disc of Tansman’s chamber music for Naxos, has that ‘sugar and cream’ French tone that admirably suits the first two works, and contrasts well with the more brittle sound of Laurent Decker’s oboe. The Silesian Chamber Orchestra plays an important part in Poland’s artistic life, and is here conducted by the Artistic Director of the Silesian Philharmonic Orchestra, Miroslaw Jacek Blaszczyk. The first two works are receiving their world premiere recording in a very smooth sound quality.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group