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CD Review

Alexandre Tansman

Works for Orchestra

  • Concerto for Orchestra
  • Études for Orchestra, Op. 11
  • Capriccio for Orchestra
Moscow Symphony Orchestra/Antonio de Almeida
Marco Polo 8.223757
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Cary Grant played by Chris Farley.

Born in Poland, Alexandre Tansman made a career in France while still in his early twenties and, like most young French composers of the time, fell under the influence of the neo-classicist Stravinsky. During World War II, he lived near Stravinsky in Los Angeles (although probably not in quite as high-rent a neighborhood) but returned to Paris at war's end. He wrote what many consider a major study of the composer, at least up until Taruskin's probably-definitive two-volume monument, which raised the stakes of Stravinsky scholarship enormously. Best known most likely for his solo guitar works commissioned by Segovia, he composed extensively in other genres, showing particular affinity for string quartet and string chamber ensembles. When Stravinsky switched to his own brand of post-Webernian serialism, Tansman unfortunately regarded his erstwhile hero as a traitor to his art or at least letting down the side, rather than as someone who had expanded his technical resources. After all, the presence or absence of serialism doesn't guarantee quality. I suspect the "tonality vs. serialism" argument (as I usually hear it expressed) will turn out as irrelevant to the future of music as the pointlessly bloody "Brahms vs. Wagner" wars of the nineteenth century. Tansman's works receive occasional recording, but not often the orchestral pieces, so I welcome this disc.

Tansman's music usually impresses one as elegant, attractive, and cleanly-written, if not particularly searching psychologically, but you can say this in general about much of neoclassicism's aesthetic itself - a style concerned to a great extent with surface and formal balance. Hearing his works suggests looking at a Wright house or a Brancusi sculpture. In this, Tansman reminds me greatly of the Swiss-American Ingolf Dahl, Stravinsky's great friend in sunny southern California.

Tansman's Concerto for Orchestra inevitably invites comparison to Bartók's masterpiece. A lot of composers seemed to enter the lists with C's for O of their own after Bartók's tremendous success, but the only ones I've heard that come up to that level are Lutosławski's and Tippett's, and even so, they're less formally assured. The Tansman doesn't strive like the Bartók or aim so high, but its uncluttered lines do attract the listener. The penultimate Lento movement in particular sings beautifully, with some of the most expressive rests I've ever heard. It reminds me a bit of the singers who hung their harps on the willows "by the rivers of Babylon." It interests me how Tansman follows and deviates from Bartók. The first movement seems to follow the first movement of the earlier work, at least as far as general movement of expression goes. On the other hand, you wonder why he calls the work a concerto at all. It takes a good orchestra to bring it off, but unlike Bartók, Tansman doesn't really play sections off against one another or dramatize splits between first-desk soloists and orchestral tutti. In the Bartók, you can point to memorable passages for just about every instrument. Even in the "Game of Couples" movement, which features the winds, the strings lay down something more than self-effacing accompaniment - really chamber music on a grand scale. Tansman (as well as just about everyone else) produces far more conventional textures.

The Études for Orchestra call for more obvious virtuosity, particularly as far as rhythm is concerned. For my money, Tansman should have called this work the "concerto," since he does make more of the "competition" among sections for musical attention. I find it more immediately attractive than the nominal Concerto, but that could well arise from the performances received (more later). The Capriccio comes across as lighter weight, despite a highly evocative "Notturno," where the stars seem to glitter in a black sky. The liner notes make much of Tansman's closeness to Stravinsky and try to argue for a close musical connection as well, but they mislead. Stravinsky was always sui generis. His music really is unique to him. His closest imitators - certain pieces by Lambert, Fine, Talma, or Dahl, for example - show who they really are after a couple of bars. The only way anyone sounded like Stravinsky was by direct steals, just as the only way anyone paints like van Gogh is through ludicrously wholesale appropriation or parody. Stravinsky, I suspect, didn't hear like the rest of us. There are instrumental combinations and figures in particular that I can't imagine anyone else inventing, since they seem at first so loopy, and yet so right in performance. Believe me, you won't mistake Tansman for Stravinsky. Stravinsky's general aesthetic and especially his example, however, freed many others to find themselves. It's not even a question of Romantic vs. Modern, since Stravinsky influenced many of the great post-Romantic composers, as well as those who wanted to "make it new" and from scratch. In fact, the two composers I hear most often in, say, Barber (other than Barber himself) are Brahms and Igor.

All of Tansman's orchestral music, in fact - not just the Concerto or the Études - requires orchestras of a certain level of skill, and unfortunately the Moscow Symphony Orchestra need not apply. The strings in particular are rhythmically sluggish and out of sync with each other, let alone the rest of the orchestra. The strings in fast passages generally contribute little more than a smear. The brass and percussion constantly pull this orchestra to the rhythmic mark. In all, one puts up with this level of performance solely for the sake of having a record of some wonderful music, but that doesn't mean one's satisfaction. Tansman deserves - even needs – better than this orchestra gives. While we all hold our collective breath waiting for the Berlin Phil to record this music, this has to do.

Copyright © 1998, Steve Schwartz