Tomasi Complete Violin Works

Henri Tomasi (1901-1971)
Complete Violin Works
Violin Concerto ‘Periple d’Ulysse’ (1962)
Capriccio (1931, rev, 1950)*
Chant hébraïque (version for violin and orchestra) (1929)*
Tristesse d’Antar (1931)*
Poème for Violin and Piano (c. 1923)*
Chant corse (version for violin and piano) (1932)*
Paghiella, Sérénade cyrnéenne (1928)*
Stéphanie Moraly (violin)
Romain David (piano)
Orchestre de la Garde républicaine/Sébastien Billard
*First recording
NAXOS 8.579091 [62]

I wonder how many people are familiar with the music of French composer Henri Tomasi. He was born in Marseille on 17 August 1901 to a family who originated from Corsica. At the age of only seven he entered the Conservatoire de Musique de Marseille. World War I delayed his entrance into the Paris Conservatoire, but in 1921 he eventually began his studies there with Philippe Gaubert, Vincent d’Indy, Georges Caussade, and Paul Vidal. 1927 was a significant year when he won the ‘Prix de Rome’. World War II marked a turning point in his career; he now received international recognition when previously he was known only  in the confines of France. In addition to composition he forged a career as a conductor. His respectable compositional oeuvre includes twelve operas, twenty concertos for a range of instruments and some piano music. A car accident in 1952, in which he broke one of his legs, put an end to his conducting career four years later. He also had to contend with encroaching deafness. His remaining years were devoted to composition. He died in 1971.

Whilst some of his works have achieved international renown, his works for violin have taken something of a backseat. Here they are brought together for the first time. All, with the exception of the Violin Concerto ‘Periple d’Ulysse’,  are premiere recordings. The works on this disc span the duration of Tomasi’s compositional career from the early Poème for Violin and Piano of 1923, through the 1930s with such works as Tristesse d’Antar and the Chant corse, to the Violin Concerto ‘Periple d’Ulysse’ of 1962.

The most substantial work on the disc is the Violin Concerto ‘Periple d’Ulysse’ (Ulysses’ Journey), composed in 1962 and commissioned and premiered by Devy Erlih with the National Orchestra of France under the baton of Georges Tzipine. Cast in four movements it’s a veritable tour-de-force for the soloist, demanding a virtuoso technique of the highest order. The work is brilliantly scored; Tomasi’s colourful orchestration is impressive by any standards. The work is inspired by Jean Giono’s novel ‘The birth of Odyssey’ and depicts “the journey of the solitary hero confronted by his fate”. It’s highly rhapsodic, with moments of passionate intensity and drama. The second movement Allegro features a stunning cadenza, followed by a section of mournful melancholy, a striking contrast after all the tense emotional tussles that have gone on before between soloist and orchestra. Yet, for me, it’s the third movement Andante which captures my affection the most. Sadness and melancholy imbue the music, with the solo violin singing a heartfelt lament over a bell-tolling accompaniment. It’s indeed very powerful. In the finale the rush and scrimmage return, ending the work with the high drama in which it began.

The three-movement Capriccio is a much earlier work, dating from 1931. It underwent a revision in 1950. The booklet notes point out that this was, in effect, the composer’s first violin concerto. To me, it’s much lighter in mood than the Violin Concerto of 1962, and conveys a distinctly Gallic tone. Once again, Tomasi proves himself a colourful and imaginative orchestrator. Two sprightly outer movements bookend a central Andante, described aptly in the booklet as “a moment of sheer beauty”. Moraly fully savours its glories with a beautiful, rich, ravishing tone. The exquisite ardent yearnings of the soloist are supported by luminous orchestration. Billard is acutely sensitive to every nuance and inflection of the score. The last movement ends in a mood of joy and playfulness. Although only a short piece, the Chant hébraïque, written two years before the Capriccio, is a well-crafted score. It’s gossamer orchestration and exotic flavour are enticing.

Stéphanie Moraly is joined by pianist Romain David for the remaining four pieces. All are brief, the longest is just under six minutes. Tristesse d’Antar or Antar’s Sorrow is disconsolate and head-bowed. Lushly romantic, it oozes passionate lyricism and Moraly and David perform it with ardent intensity. The Poème for Violin and Piano is a very early work from around the year 1923. It has a simple charm and is touchingly melodic. In Chant corse, the composer pays homage to his Corsican heritage. It depicts the Corsican spring sunshine, and Romain David conjures up some radiant, diaphanous sonorities along the way. The final piece, Paghiella, Sérénade cyrnéenne, is a Corsican serenade. Written in 1928, it was dedicated to violinist Zino Francescatti, a close friend. It’s flamboyant in style with some catchy rhythms. Add some Spanish and gypsy elements to the mix and you have all the ingredients for an engaging score.

I have really enjoyed this CD and recommend it wholeheartedly, simply because it ticks all the right boxes. Moraly and David perform these works with distinction. Their playing has precision and panache, and expressive warmth when called for. I admire their sublime musicianship. The recording is top notch.

For those eager to explore the music of Tomasi further, I’ve reviewed two other CDs of his music, both of which are worth investigating, one of his concertos (review), and the other of his piano music (review).

Stephen Greenbank

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