TANSMAN: 24 Intermezzi. Piano Sonata No. 5 / Hanna Holeska, pno / Dux 1688-1
Alexander Tansman, whose first name is sometimes spelled Alexandre, was a Polish-Jewish composer who thrived in Paris during the 1920s and ‘30s, but like most Polish Jews (add to that list violinist Bronislaw Huberman, pianist Artur Rubinstein and composer Mieczysław Weinberg), he was ignored or marginalized during his lifetime in his own country. The arts community in Poland has changed over the years, but not the government or the general public, which remain virulently anti-Semitic.
Tansman’s music, though modern and using both modes and bitonality, is not nearly as challenging as much of what was being written in those days. Even Czech composer Tibor Harsányi, who also worked in France during those years, wrote edgier and more complex music; but this doesn’t mean that Tansman’s scores were inferior, just easier for the public to digest.
The 24 Intermezzi, which fill up the bulk of this CD, are pieces that lay halfway between the light, entertaining style of previous pianist-composers and the more complex music of Tansman’s peers. They are clearly not as difficult to digest as the short piano pieces of Szymanowski, for instance, but they just miss being “entertaining” by virtue of their musical complexity. Although Tansman skirted the most challenging aspects of the modern music of his time—his rhythms are steady, and for the most part he at least bases his music on tonality—there is always something thorny going on under the surface, even in the slow pieces such as Intermezzo No. 5 (“Adagio cantabile”) that pulls the music just few inches out of the reach of the average concertgoer. The Intermezzo No. 7, marked “Moderato,” is probably the most immediately attractive and least edgy of those in the second set whereas No. 12 (“Allegro barbaro”) is the most abrasive. Written in 1939-40, a watershed period for the composer (just before he emigrated to the United States in 1941), they are an advance on the music he wrote previously such as his “Transatlantic” Sonata. He had also moved away by this time from the jazz influence one can hear in some of his late ‘20s-early ‘30s works; perhaps he felt that if he presented himself as a genuinely modern composer he would be more readily accepted in the United States.
In Book 4, it is Intermezzo No. 21, “Adagio lamentoso,” which is very thorny in its harmony, using downward chromatics to impart a feeling of gloom on the piece, but No. 22 (“Allegro scherzando”), though faster and more technically complicated, is no walk in the part despite its use of a steady syncopated rhythm. And interestingly, the next piece, “Hommage à Brahms,” reverts to Tansman’s earlier, jazz-inflected style and is harmonically consonant throughout.
The Piano Sonata No. 5 is a late work, from 1955, and dedicated to the memory of Béla Bartók. It is very Bartókian indeed with its angular rhythms and spiky modal harmonies, mirroring the folk music that the older composer, along with Kodály, heard and recorded in the field. It reminds one of some of Bartók’s most aggressive compositions, yet there are many touches in the piece that tell you that Bartók was not its creator. Yet for all its brilliance, there’s just something about its construction that, to my ears, make it sound more like a suite than a sonata. Nonetheless, it’s a fascinating piece and quite engaging in its own way.
Piano Hanna Holeska does an admirable job on these pieces, combining a lyrical flow with rhythmic and technical precision to put these works in their best light. She plays elegantly but not too softly or ambiguously to defuse the occasional excitement in these pieces; and speaking as someone who very much appreciates many modern pianists who play in a more angular style with less ambience in their sound, I was not put off by this approach. Tansman worked in France, and French pianists of his time certainly played in a similar manner.
—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley
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