Mark Buller | 23 APR 2019
My introduction to the music of Alexandre Tansman (1897-1986) was some years ago, on the Naxos album Genesis Suite (8.559442), which included the reconstruction of a work for narrators, choir, and orchestra, with contributions by seven composers – Schoenberg and Stravinsky among them. Tansman’s contribution was “Adam and Eve.” Like the others, he provided orchestral accompaniment for a narrator declaiming text from the Biblical Creation story.
The piece as a whole contains not a few striking moments, but Tansman’s contribution is particularly memorable: it’s a dash of Ravel, mixed with the sensibilities of film composers from the era, mixed with the traditional sensibilities of all of those European composers displaced by the Second World War. That relatively short movement piqued my interest in this fascinating composer. While there has of course been a respectable amount of attention to the music of Tansman from record companies (Chandos in particular), I was happy to see this new album from Giorgio Koukl on the Grand Piano label, consisting of Tansman’s previously-unrecorded works for solo piano.
Such albums, which dive into a composer’s back catalogue, are always welcome, filling out as they do the low spots in the recorded catalogue, but they can be uneven in quality. I usually approach these albums with a mixture of curiosity and reserve: too often some musicians and labels take a “quantity over quality” approach, which I suppose is to some degree understandable. After all, what pianist will make a career of playing the works of Tcherepnin or Neefe? Some sound as if the musicians are sight-reading, or working on limited rehearsal time. But this collection should instill no such worry, as Koukl is a sure-footed advocate for a composer whose once-bright star seems to have faded in recent decades.
The works included on this album are comprised mostly of short movements, ranging from the years of Tansman’s exile in Los Angeles, where he was welcomed into the community of those who had fled fascism, to the postwar years when he had returned to Europe to face a musical community that tended to sideline him in favor of ever-increasing complexity.
The album begins with the 1955 Interludes, which are tantalizing in their brevity, and, like the rest of the album, will leave listeners curious as to what Tansman can do with larger forms. The Interludes are a great introduction to the composer’s style, showing off everything from impressions of Impressionism in No. 1, to near-atonality in No. 4, to a Bartók-like stubbornness in No. 6. This is Tansman in a nutshell: there’s the eastern European origin, with its indebtedness to folk forms and traditions, the French care for small details and sweeping lines, and touches of American industrialism and popular styles.
We see this stylistic mélange again on display in the Hommage à Arthur Rubinstein from 1973. The first movement is a mazurka in the style of Szymanoswki, a movement in which Koukl infuses a spirit alternating tenderness with a jubilant, dance-like spirit. The second and final movement is dense and filled with schizophrenic alternation of figures and themes. A lesser pianist would here lose the narrative, the propulsive thread, but Koukl keeps the momentum steady.
In 2 Pièces Hébraïques (1955) and Visit to Israel (1958) we hear Tansman exploring his Jewish background. While he was not a devoted practitioner of the faith, this cultural affiliation was certainly a driving force in his life – by no small means because it drove his movements in the 1940s and 50s. Here Tansman limits himself to a more monochromatic, devotional palate, which when compared to the excitement of the nonreligious works might strike some listeners are monotonous. Koukl does his best here to keep the momentum moving without consciously speeding the tempo.
The 1943 Prelude et Toccata was a real highlight for me. The Prelude especially is a beautiful, haunting piece, voiced expertly by Koukl. Written during Tansman’s American exile, it contains just the slightest influence of jazz, and it’s tempting to say the composer absorbed bits of the American style while in Los Angeles. This sensibility is even more prevalent in the busy, clangorous second movement, which contains the noticeable influence of Stravinsky’s Piano-Rag Music – an unsurprising choice given Tansman’s fascination and friendship with the elder composer.
One small quibble should be mentioned regarding the Six Caprices (1941), five of which are included here as the sixth is incomplete. While certain of them show Koukl at his most volcanic (think Yefim Bronfman), the fourth displays the first chink in his armor. The movement is frighteningly transparent. In just 34 seconds, the pianist never leaves the upper register and, in a style foreshadowing the mechanical works of Ligeti, must play the same complicated figure repeatedly, but at different intervals. Here the ostinato gives Koukl a bit of trouble, and once or twice there are missed notes. On the whole, this is not a big deal, but seems uncharacteristic of Koukl given his attention to detail in the rest of the album.
Overall, we are indebted to Koukl and to Grand Piano for these wonderful, world premiere recordings. Koukl proves an able match for the mercurial and fascinating Tansman, and is certainly a convincing advocate. Here’s hoping for a second volume. ■
*Full disclosure: Lux Nova Press publishes compositions by Giorgio Koukl.