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ClassicsOnline Home » TANSMAN, A.: Clarinet Concerto / Concertino / 6 Movements for Strings (Fessard, Decker, Silesian Chamber Orchestra, Blaszczyk)
The polystylistic riches of his music mark Alexandre Tansman as a free- and clear-thinking composer. Polish-born and active in Paris and the USA, Tansman had a successful career and his music now enjoys renewed interest worldwide. The sinuous contours and tender melodies of his Clarinet Concerto contrast with the ever-changing musical styles of his Concertino for Oboe, Clarinet and Strings. The Six Movements for String Orchestra form a cycle unified by their deftly conceived interrelationships. His 24 Intermezzi and Petite Suite (8.572266) and Chamber Music with Clarinet (8.570235) are also available.
Alexandre Tansman (1897-1986)
Clarinet Concerto • Concertino for Oboe, Clarinet and Orchestra • Six Movements for String Orchestra
For Alexandre Tansman, 1952 was a particularly difficult year. He had just returned from a trip to Venice when his wife, the pianist Colette Cras, was diagnosed with what proved to be terminal cancer. It was in this context that he conducted the première of his oratorio Isaïe le Prophète in Paris on 5 May, and that he composed his Concertino for oboe, clarinet and string orchestra, whose manuscript is simply marked “Paris 1952”. The work is dedicated to Sylvie and Bronis1aw Horowicz, close family friends who supported the composer through this painful and tragic time. The Concertino was first performed in 1953 by the Radio France Chamber Orchestra conducted by Pierre Capdevielle.
With its six movements, the composition’s structure is reminiscent of a suite rather than a concerto. However, this mix of neo-baroque elements (in the Ouverture and the Final’s fugue), linear writing (in the Dialogue, Élégie and Canon), modernist rhythms and dissonance (in the Scherzo), and intense and sombre expression (the Élégie) is testament to the “polystylistic” riches of Tansman’s art, in which none of the means available to the modern composer are ruled out.
Frothy and lighthearted, the Ouverture opens with a rhythmic impulse from the orchestra which launches a shifting duet for the solo instruments. A tense clarinet line emerges from a brief imitation in the woodwind to combine baroque figurations and jazzy sound effects, eliciting a more cheerful four-note motif (B–C sharp–B–F sharp) in response from the oboe. Following a passage for strings alone, a second imitation of the oboe by the clarinet introduces a more polyphonic episode. This exposition is repeated in full and followed by a short conclusion based on the rhythmic impulse and shifting music of the opening.
The inward-looking Dialogue brings a striking contrast. The title refers primarily to the conversation between the two soloists of this “double concerto”, but also to the alternating sections for soloists and orchestra respectively, based on a minimalist coming and going of mysterious chords.
The Scherzo opens with light music setting the soloists in opposition to the orchestra, and continues with a rhythmic motif (crotchet–two quavers) in the winds, enlivened by dissonant seconds. The soloists briefly take up a mischievous motif, then we hear a long oboe solo, fairly chromatic and reduced in range. The chromaticism later intensifies and plaintive minor seconds in the strings herald a strict two-part counterpoint, firstly for the soloists, then the violins, before a conclusion that brings together the rhythmic motif (strings) and the mischievous motif (wind).
The sombre Élégie is written for the strings alone. In effect, the fifth movement, Canon, acts as its central section, followed as it is by a full repeat of the Élégie, this time for muted strings. The Canon theme is played first by solo first violin, then solo viola, clarinet, oboe, and finally by tutti first violins.
Three sections make up the Final. The first has a Stravinskyan feel; the second features a fugue, whose subject is entrusted in turn to second violins, first violins, violas and then cellos. The last section is a literal return to the opening movement, with the baroque/jazz clarinet theme, the “cheerful” oboe motif and the passage for strings, while its closing bars also match the Ouverture’s conclusion.
Dating from the same year (1957) as Tansman’s operatic masterpiece, Sabbataï Zevi, Le faux Messie, the Clarinet Concerto is written for chamber orchestra and dedicated to clarinettist Louis Cahuzac (1880-1960). The première was given in Paris on 14 June 1959 by Cahuzac and the RTF Chamber Orchestra under the baton of Tony Aubin.
Despite its seemingly traditional three-movement structure, the Concerto is original in its formal design and individual in its inspiration. The work is based on a cell of four notes divided by a wide seventh—much of the thematic material of all three movements is derived from this basic unit. The opening Introduction et Allegro has a tripartite slow–quick–slow structure. A “grey” section moving in chords begins in the muted strings. The clarinet entry coincides with a dottedrhythm motif in the cellos which, when picked up by the flute, becomes a kind of mysterious call. The Allegro con moto is based on two themes: the first is introduced by the oboe and when adopted by the clarinet incorporates an allusion to Stravinsky’s Octet, while the second, in a slightly slower tempo, is delicate and expressive. An orchestral tutti (the only one in the work) on the Allegro’s initial motif precedes the clarinet’s third entry which results in the two themes overlapping one another. A slowing of the tempo marks the return to the Introduction materials, organised differently, with the second theme now recalled by the solo instrument.
The orchestra plays a discreet role in the Arioso. After a syncopated introduction on the strings, we hear one of Tansman’s loveliest melodic inventions, a tender and lyrical piece of writing. The melody incorporates the four-note cell mentioned above, and a melancholy counter-melody on the oboe introduces a touch verging on the baroque.
A cadenza for the solo clarinet precedes the final Danza popolare, whose writing is stylised in the manner of an imaginary folk dance. The main theme, with its sinuous contours and laden with chromaticisms, is set out by the first violins. After a contrasting section, it is taken up by the violas, then the first violins, before being continued by the clarinet, taking on a more outward-looking, almost klezmer-like colour.
The Six Movements for string orchestra, dedicated to composer and conductor Pierre Capdevielle (1906–1969), were composed in 1962–1963 in Paris and Rome. The work was first performed on 2 October 1963 by the RTF Chamber Orchestra conducted by André Girard. These are not six different pieces each with its own independent existence but six movements that together form a cycle whose strong sense of unity derives from a series of deftly conceived internal relationships.
The first of the six, Introduzione e Allegro giocoso, opens in mysterious vein with a tripartite introduction incorporating numerous symmetries. Successive entries in trills create a rippling sound-surface, with a clearly differentiated interior life. The Allegro, a complex and highly original movement, is built around three ideas. The third of these becomes the subject of the fugue with which the cycle concludes. Atonal chromaticism and polytonality are freely used, as required.
Dirge is cast in a simple ABA’ ternary form. The title calls to mind mourning and the funeral rite: this is a sombre and intimate song, a genuine expression of grief.
The Perpetuum mobile is a virtuosic movement based on repeated chords or notes which at times come close to toccata style. Tremolos, appoggiatura notes, saltando and staccato bowing, pizzicati and harmonics all play a part in these constantly varied abstract and modernist sound games, above and below which we hear themes based on chords or ostinato motifs. At times the music is entirely athematic, becoming a purely rhythmic sound phenomenon. The harmonic palette also covers a broad spectrum, from straightforward dissonance of two (or more) minor seconds superimposed in clusters, or elegantly structured chords, to the resolute conclusion on a C major chord after the polytonal colours of B major arpeggios.
An ABA’ form returns in the Intermezzo. The orchestra, muted, returns to the refined sonorities of the introduction with “fan-like” progressive entries. The middle section features a three-line contrapuntal texture in the high register, which is then repeated by a different combination of instruments. A second texture, introduced by the second violins, reaches an apogee in a chromatic progression of eight-note chords in the divisi violins and violas above a held note on the cellos. The third and final section inverts the materials of the first.
The Scherzino is a rhythmic piece that begins pizzicato with condensed motifs saturated with minor seconds and augmented fourths leading any sense of key to dissolve. These urgent rhythms, again based more on sound itself than on any thematic material, give way on three occasions to more melodic designs.
Finally, the Fugue has a free and inventive structure, within which the composer includes elements borrowed from the Perpetuum mobile. Its theme is constructed in characteristic manner, with its initial descending seventh leap and its six sixths alternating with chromaticisms.
© 2010 Gérald Hugon
Translation by Susannah Howe
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