The Music of Éric Tanguy

ODE1390-2 cover

TANGUY: Clarinet Concerto.* Matka. Violin Concerto No. 2+ / *Pierre Génisson, cl; +Júlia Pusker, vln; Jyväskylä Sinfonia; Ville Matvejeff, cond / Ondine ODE 1390-2

According to his website, Frenchman Éric Tanguy is “one of the most performed French composers in the world,” but apparently being one of the most performed doesn’t mean that very much of his music has been recorded. I was able to locate 10 CDs which contain but one piece of his on each of them, mixed in with other composers. This is the only CD I’ve seen devoted solely to his music. His online “biography” doesn’t say who he studied composition with, and the download of this CD did not include any booklet.

But it’s true, Tanguy’s music is very impressive indeed. Unlike nearly all other modern composers I’ve heard, aside from Kalevi Aho, Errollyn Wallen and Robert Groslot, Tanguy does not write in a formulaic style, copying the edgy-abrasive school, the neo-Romantics, the minimalists or the drippy-weepy Millennial schools. His music does have strong rhythms and does indeed play around with the harmony, but for the most part his is a modern lyrical style with rhythmic accents in the tradition of Honegger or Dutilleux. The first movement of his Clarinet Concerto features angular yet lyric lines for the soloist against a backdrop of orchestral sounds scored in such a way that they emphasize the winds and brass more than the strings. It is also restless music; Tanguy apparently does not believe in simply setting up a rhythm, and/or a melodic line, and letting them take their own course. He is constantly nudging and prodding his music along, developing his odd themes in his own singular manner. The music is stimulating and fascinating but not warm or inviting; you have to come to it, it’s not going to entice you with pretty sounds. Even in the slow movement of this concerto, Tanguy uses a lyric line but because of the brilliant-sounding orchestration and unusual harmonic movement, it sounds more unsettled than welcoming, as if one suddenly encountered am unthreatening but nonetheless suspicious terrain in a forest or jungle. And yet, nothing really sinister ever happens…it just sounds as if it’s about to happen. At one point, the soloist actually duets with another clarinet from the orchestra.

The third movement uses a sort of fast 3 meter, divided up as two quarter notes followed by a triplet in each bar at the outset. This music has some edgy moments, but is primarily positive-sounding music, particularly in the clarinet part which uses some ideas from Klezmer. Tanguy also saves the cadenza for this movement, a strange one which eventually ends in a duet with a solo flute before the orchestra returns to ride things out.

Matka is an atmospheric tone poem for orchestra emphasizing, again, bright orchestral colors (how very French!) to create an amorphous, atmospheric piece that wanders in and out of your mind. Yet Tanguy never forsakes real musical development in favor of aural “tricks”; he is always thinking ahead as to where his music is going, he just takes circuitous routes to get there. Circuitous is also a good description for the swirling figures that come in around the 4:20 mark, which then lead directly into a sort of march-like figure. A bit later, around 6:23, the orchestra thins out, leaving only a few strings, winds and glockenspiel to play together; eventually, an eerie-sounding passage, either played by an organ or simulating the sound of an organ, is heard in the background. At about 9:20 one hears a viola theme that sounds for all the world like an African-American spiritual tune, which is then developed to a 6/8 meter. Truly a strange piece!

By the time I reached the Violin Concerto No. 2, I had finally adjusted by ears and mind to Tanguy’s aesthetic, and so was able to expect and recognize certain rhythmic and thematic ideas. I also came to expect subtle but clearly audible contributions from the tympani, but to my surprise they were heavier here than in the clarinet concerto. The solo violin plays a fairly tortured line, musically knotty and dramatic, against this backdrop. This is clearly a more visceral piece than the previous two works; I do believe that Patricia Kopatshinskaja would like this work a lot. In a way, however, the slow movement of this concerto is too similar in both themes and mood to the second movement of the Clarinet Concerto. Tanguy really needs to develop an alternative approach to slow movements so that they don’t sound so much alike.

The third movement, although energetic like the last movement of the Clarinet Concerto, has its own peculiar traits about it. Suffice it to say, however, that this will never become a concert hall staple; it’s far too modern to appeal to the “music for your heart, mind and spirit” crowd who sticks to Mozart-Beethoven-Brahms.

An excellent album, then, with quite a bit of interesting and provocative music.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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