07Tansmancompose_webWhen “Ida” received the Oscar for best foreign film, it put a global spotlight on a Polish story about that nation’s struggle to face Jewish memories from the Nazi era. Earlier this year, the Los Angeles Philharmonic gave a concert that touched on these themes in a different way.
The orchestra performed the long-awaited American premiere of the Symphony No. 4 by the late Henryk Górecki, Poland’s most famous 20th-century composer. In this piece, he paid homage to Alexandre Tansman, a Polish Jewish composer who fled the Nazis, and whose work is almost never played now though he was once a star. Górecki named his powerful symphony “Tansman Episodes” and built its harmonic structure using the letters of Tansman’s name. The program also included a piece that Tansman wrote for a close friend with whom he shared his exile in Los Angeles, “Stèle in memoriam Igor Stravinsky.”
Los Angeles Times music critic Mark Swed praised Tansman’s music, saying it had “elements of late Stravinsky in it, as well as jazzy or chest-beating elements that are not reminiscent of Stravinsky at all.” Swed called him “the most noted Polish composer” of the 20th century next to Karol Szymanowski and Górecki, citing Tansman as “an important influence” on Górecki’s haunting Symphony No. 3. That work, “The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs,” speaks to Poland’s grief under the Nazis and, in the 1990s, was the best-selling classical music recording ever.
Also, this winter, a pair of wildly gifted young Poles in a cello-piano ensemble called the Cracow Duo toured the U.S. with Tansman-centered programs, pairing his work with Chopin’s at the Weill Recital Hall in New York. All this Tansman seems to be sheer coincidence. Still, it feels fated that this season, long after Tansman’s name went underground, he would appear so frequently, a re-invigorated ghost.
Are we in the early spring of a Tansman revival? Rediscovering composers whose lives were destroyed by the Holocaust or eclipsed by World War II has become something of a rage. A growing array of Tansman recordings — his ouevre comprises over 300 works — can be heard online, along with YouTube videos that reflect Tansman’s startling variety, from the “Sonatine for Bassoon and Piano” to his stunning “Cavatina for solo guitar.” The Chandos label has released most of his nine symphonies and other major pieces. In 2010, the rising Israeli-born pianist David Greilsammer recorded Tansman’s Piano Concerto No. 2.
In a midtown Manhattan hotel lobby, I spoke with cellist Jan Kalinowski and pianist Marek Szlezer, both in their early 30s. As members of the Cracow Duo, Szlezer said they champion Tansman because “he writes with precision, but also with the jazz influences and a lot of feeling.” Kalinowski, soul patch on his chin, agreed with a nod.
“For us,” Szlezer added, “Tansman is really one of the great composers of the 20th century.”
Tansman, who was born in 1897, is considered a neo-classicist; he had an ease with traditional forms, but much of his work defies labels. It can seem well ordered at first, but the beauty has a deeper purpose. It pulls effortlessly to the center from emotional opposites, often exuberance and melancholy. His musical language blends expressive harmonies, rich but restrained melodies, and inventive rhythms, drawing on Polish dances, jazz and Spanish forms. Pianists marvel at Tansman’s feeling for 1920s jazz, which he absorbed when he toured America as a virtuoso pianist. It’s risky to ascribe moral qualities to his music, but the constant I hear — one people say reflects his personality — is a haunted but unbroken decency.
Most of Tansman’s Jewish pieces came amid the rise and fall of the Nazis, and then after the war. In 1933, when the Nazis took power, he created a series of 12 chants — “Chants Hébraïques,” he called them — after meeting a young woman from Yemen who sang Yemenite Jewish melodies to him.

Read more: http://forward.com/articles/217468/on-alexandre-the-greatest-jewish-composer-youve-ne/?p=all#ixzz3VtsuNcPR