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CD Review

Alexandre Tansman

Naxos 8.572402

Music for Clarinet & Strings

  • Clarinet Concerto (1957)
  • Concertino for Oboe, Clarinet & Strings (1952)
  • 6 Movements for Strings (1962-63)
Jean-Marc Fessard, clarinet
Laurent Decker, oboe
Silesian Chamber Orchestra/Miroslaw Jacek Blaszczyk
Naxos 8.572402 62:19
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Cool clarinet.

Alexandre Tansman, born in the Russian part of Poland to a well-off Jewish family, studied both piano and composition. The conservative Polish musical culture convinced him that his music would never make much headway in Poland, and so he moved to Paris in 1920, where he quickly established himself as a new bright light. Stravinsky, Ravel, Milhaud, and Honegger befriended him, and the latter two tried to get him to join Les Six. However, Tansman feared for his independence (little did he know the members of Les Six) and kept apart. Nevertheless, composer associations grew like weeds in interwar Paris, and he affiliated with the even looser Ecole de Paris, which also included the Czech Martinů, Rumanian Marcel Mihalovici, and Swiss Conrad Beck – not a native Frenchman among them. Tansman fled France during the war and wound up in Hollywood to write both stock music and full soundtracks for films, Sister Kenny the best-known among them. His score for Paris Underground garnered him an Academy Award nomination. After the war, he returned to Paris, where he remained.

Tansman gave his major artistic allegiance, like the other members of L'Ecole de Paris, to Stravinsky and neoclassicism. He published a book on Stravinsky in the late Forties, just before the Russian turned to dodecaphony in his final period. Tansman considered Stravinsky's change in direction a major betrayal of principle. Although he received honors in his old age, his own music grew increasingly marginalized in postwar Paris, what with Messiaën and Boulez in the ascendant, and he never regained the prominence he had before and during World War II. He continued to compose to shortly before his death in 1986.

Between the wars, Stravinsky provided a rich and fruitful example to composers. Some like Martinů, Bartók, and Copland in the United States took his highly sophisticated blend of dissonance and folk music. Others, like Markevitch, were drawn to his ritualism. Still others, like Mihalovici and Milhaud, concentrated on Stravinsky's strong asymmetrical rhythms as a basis for their own styles. Very few of these fellows wrote music that mimicked the Russian. They don't sound very much like one another, either, and their temperaments also differ.

Tansman liked Stravinsky's elegance, formal monumentality, and clarity. His music has few out-and-out shocks, and its emotions tend to run on the cool side. A certain contemporary view of Mozart as "the perfect musical architect" lurked in the background (still around today, of course) – a view that, in my opinion, ignores much of importance in Mozart. The works on this CD show the transition from Tansman's relatively pure neoclassicism to something darker and more complex in his late period. Two feature the clarinet, an instrument that suited Tansman's music and that he understood very well.

In six (really, five) movements – Ouverture, Dialogue, Scherzo, Élégie, Canon–Éléie, and Final – the Concertino for Oboe and Clarinet shows most clearly Tansman's neoclassical style. It has its traps for performers. For one thing, the oboe penetrates more than a clarinet and can bury it in the mass of strings – a problem which Tansman doesn't always allow for. However, the musical ideas delight. The Ouverture's chattering and singing rhythms and its reliance on 3- and 4-note cells make plain Tansman's acquaintance with Martinů, and the Dialogue's cool counterpoint (much of it a duet between the two soloists, with chordal "breaks" from the strings) with Stravinsky in the Forties. A mordant Scherzo bubbles with jazzy riffs and close imitation among all the parts. The Élégie and the Canon–Élégie follow. Formally, two movements, the listener perceives it as an A-B-A form – the outer Élégie, a beautifully solemn aria for the strings, contrasts with a complex canon ("Row, row, your boat" is a simple canon) mainly for the soloists, but eventually each of the string parts gets in on the act. The Finale breaks into three parts: a very Stravinskian, Dumbarton Oaks allegro; a fugue; a literal return to the Ouverture. However, on closer hearing, Tansman hints at motifs from that earlier movement in the allegro.

Tansman's wife was diagnosed with inoperable cancer the year of the Concertino. One can never know for sure about the effect of events on a composer's imagination. Some of the happiest music has resulted from troubled periods and vice versa. Art, after all, comes from "inner weather," in Robert Frost's phrase. Nevertheless, Tansman's Clarinet Concerto takes a dark turn. It opens in numbness, with the clarinet trying to break the stasis of the strings. Over a third of the movement goes by before the clarinet generates a solid allegro, acerbic rather than happy until lassitude sets in again. The slow Arioso movement lyrically and lovingly meditates – one of the most beautiful things in the composer's output. It incorporates a mini-call to arms from the first movement, characterized by a very wide leap, now slowed down to express longing. The music reminds me a bit of the slow movement to Ravel's Piano Concerto in G, in that it shows you the tenderness and the heartbreak in the ineffable. The abstract moves you, and you don't know why. A clarinet cadenza begins the finale and leads to a "Danza popolare," beginning in grays and with light occasionally breaking through. The main theme sounds to me like an elaboration of the "call to arms" in the previous movements. The concerto ends happily. Gérald Hugon, who did the liner notes, claims to hear klezmer in this movement. I don't.

The 6 Movements appeared in the early Sixties. Tansman's real neglect began then, with the rise of dodecaphony and the avant-garde – unfortunate, since some of his greatest music lies there. I was around and conscious then. Although I reserved judgment on the current trends until I felt I knew them better, I did feel very keenly the temporary passing of many of my musical heroes like Copland, Bloch, Vaughan Williams, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Piston, Diamond, Mennin, Honegger, Milhaud, Poulenc, and neoclassic Stravinsky. With the 6 Pieces, Tansman's expressive resources have increased significantly. He lets dissonance in far more willingly than before, and as something more than a piquant color. The score exhibits many subtle motific interrelationships between movements. The opening measures, dissonant clusters building up note by note, contain the seeds of most of what goes on. One of the ideas of the first piece becomes the fugal subject in the sixth. Tansman's neoclassicism nevertheless comes through in his commitment to lucidity. Not for him an aural tar pit. One of the most difficult things in art (and elsewhere) is to say exactly and clearly what you mean and one of the easiest to hand over a mess and claim its profundity. Tansman uses dissonance, but not to hide behind. His devotion to neoclassical ideas won't allow him to fudge in that way. He still has the integrity to make himself a target, with nothing but the work itself to defend him. One encounters a less immediately-attractive surface, but this score for me has the strongest hold in the program.

The performances are fine without being special. The music is the star here. A fine release in Naxos's Tansman series.

Copyright © 2012, Steve Schwartz

Trumpet