TANSMAN: Sextour, Ballet-Bouffe.* Bric à Brac: Ballet en 3 Tableaux+ / Polish Radio Symphony Orchesrea; *Łukasz Borowicz, +Wojiech Michniewski, conductors . CPO 777987-2
Alexander Tansman was always a sort of “musician’s favorite” composer, seldom a mainstream name, and this situation hasn’t changed much over the decades. Here are two of his superbly crafted if obscure ballet scores, superbly played by the Polish Radio Symphony under the direction of two of its outstanding conductors, both of whom have received praise from me in the past.
The first piece, Sextuor, Ballet-Bouffe, is based on the surrealist story of Alexandre Arnoux in which a violin and a cello vie for the love of a flute. The characters are other musical instruments, which excited the young Tansman, and the notes tell us that this 1923 ballet was one of Tansman’s few international successes, making him famous. The score is extraordinarily colorful and, even better, highly creative. Although this is music for dancing, nothing in it is rhythmically predictable. Indeed, even when the violin and cello enter as characters, Tansman keeps the music shifting in tempo and mood, exploiting various colors. One superb example of his imagination is the whimsical trombone solo, accompanied by an almost extroverted kettledrum; another is the succeeding passage, in which a solo clarinet leads us into a riotous orchestral outburst before the love interest, the flute, enters the scene—accompanied by a wry comment from the trombone. Much of the middle portion of the ballet, in fact, is slow, almost Romantic in feeling, but by using a sparse orchestral texture and fluid changes of tonality Tansman succeeds in keeping it from sounding goopy or maudlin. Apparently the whole orchestra gets all het up over this love triangle, for this section is followed by a segment played in strong march tempo with staccato trumpets pitted against the rest of the orchestra which has apparently lost its way to the home key. Eventually they find it, yet the violins plays a wild series of up-and-down arpeggios in A while the French horns and the flute are involved in the key of C, later subtly morphing into F. The lucid and lively conducting of Borowicz is evident throughout this piece.
The Bric à Brac Ballet en 3 Tableaux was written considerably later, in 1935. The plot for his work seems to be rather obscure; the director of the Paris Grand Opéra wanted to have it set “between stalls of wood and corrugated iron at a flea market near the Porte de Clignancourt for a premiere during the 1939/40 season.” Unfortunately, the outbreak of World War II put off its actual premiere until 1958. This is more seasoned Tansman, equally original in his musical expression and sense of orchestral color without being quite as wildly imaginative as he had been in 1923. He is still adept at shifting moods and tempi, and the occasional lively episodes show a continued imaginative use of orchestration (in some places reminiscent of Schoenberg’s orchestration of the Brahms Piano Quartet). Although presented on the CD in a single track, the score is broken up into 14 scenes, and there are moments here where Tansman suggests his newfound love of jazz (he wrote a Blues and a jazz-tingled Piano Sonatine “Transatlantique” as well), particularly the section beginning at 9:42 that sounds for all the world like a paraphrase of the second movement of the Gershwin Piano Concerto. Yet another Gershwinesque reference comes in at the 21:50 mark. The orchestration here is richer but the tonality a bit more conventional. Because of its greater length, however—36 minutes as compared to Sextuour’s 18—Tansman was able to stretch out his ideas more and work them in a more thorough, if also more conventional, manner.
None of which is to suggest that Bric à Brac is in any way inferior to the Sextuor, merely different in scope and scale. The same whimsical musical mind is clearly at work here: note the jolly French-sounding tune played by the clarinets at the 14:20 mark, which sounds for all the world like 20th-century Offenbach and develops in a most interesting manner. Also, when he re-introduces his Gershwinisms after 21:50, Tansman plays havoc with the rhythms, breaking them up and redistributing them in comical ways. It’s just that he chose to be a bit more formal here than he was in 1923. Michniewski gives as fine a performance of this ballet as Borowicz does of the earlier.
One of the odd things about this release is that the two pieces were recorded 12 years apart, Bric à Brac in 2001 and the Sextuor in 2014. My guess is that CPO intended to do a Tansman release way back in the early years of the new century, got Bric à Brac on tape, and then ran out of money and/or interest until Borowicz came along and recorded the Sextuor. Such are the realities of classical recording in the new era, and what makes it ironic is that when the first recording was made physical CDs were still a major force on the market, whereas now, for reasons still unclear to me, most music lovers prefer hearing classical music played on crappy little speakers or “ear buds” on their electronic “devices.” Just another piece of evidence, if such were needed, that we live in a degenerate and disposable culture. Nothing is permanent, not even the best in music. C’est la vie!
Bottom line: If you’ve been previously unaware of Tansman, this is a great place to start, and if you know some of his music but have never heard these ballets you need to get this disc.
—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley