About this Recording
GP608 - TCHEREPNIN, A.: Piano Music, Vol. 1 (Koukl)
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Alexander Tcherepnin (1899–1977)
Complete Piano Music • 1


Russian-born composer, pianist and conductor Alexander Tcherepnin (1899–1977) was raised in an artistic family. Through the Tcherepnin’s close relations with the Benois and Diaghilev families, their St Petersburg home was a gathering place for musicians, artists, and the Russian creative intelligentsia. Alexander’s father, Nikolay, was himself a respected conductor, pianist and composer who studied under Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov. Alexander began playing piano and composing at an early age. By his late teens he had composed several hundred pieces, thirteen piano sonatas among them, before the family fled to Tbilisi, Georgia, to escape famine, cholera, and the political turmoil of the Russian Revolution. They abandoned Tbilisi in 1921 when Georgia became occupied and annexed by the Soviet Union, and settled in Paris. There Alexander completed his formal studies with Paul Vidal and Isidor Philipp at the Paris Conservatory, and launched his international career.

Tcherepnin traveled extensively to the United States, Japan, and China. It was in China that he met his wife, pianist Lee Hsien Ming. They had three sons, Peter, Serge and Ivan, and remained in France through World War II, moving to the United States in 1948. Tcherepnin spent most of the rest of his life traveling between the U.S. and Europe. He died in Paris in 1977.

The music on this disc demonstrates Alexander Tcherepnin’s mastery of the miniature—so much can be said so effectively in so little time. The real tribute to him is that most were written in a particular style and musical language that he developed as a young composer, away from musical capitals of the world, and refined throughout his life. These pieces show little evidence of anything strange, but speak to the heart in the tradition of Romantic music, where communication of emotion is paramount. They bring to mind the words of St Francis of Assisi: “He who works with his hands is a labourer. He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman. He who works with his hands, his head, and his heart is an artist.”

Bagatelles, Op 5 were gathered from a much larger number of short pieces written between 1912 and 1918 when Tcherepnin was still a teenager. They have become staples of the literature for young pianists venturing into early 20th century classical music. In his twenties, Tcherepnin was embarrassed by the success of these little vignettes, thinking them childish, naïve, stiff, and “home-made”. But as he matured, he relented and accepted their spontaneity. In comments written in 1963 for The Piano Teacher magazine, the composer revealed the strong, emotional picture stories he was evoking. Once can best approach them with the imagination of an incredibly precocious teenager and enjoy the pictures that emerge in the mind and heart.

Sonata No 1, Op 22 was Sonata No 14 when nineteen-year-old Tcherepnin began writing it in St. Petersburg and finished it in Tbilisi. His first twelve youthful sonatas have been lost to history, but his thirteenth sonata escaped being discarded and was published as the Sonatina Romantique, Op 4. This his fourteenth sonata became renamed Sonata No 1 upon its publication in 1922. It became an important part of his own recital repertory as pianist. Although Tcherepnin had already begun to solidify his nine-step scale technique, that approach is not an important element in this work. The opening Allegro comodo movement, the longest track on this disc, is vaguely reminiscent of Prokofiev’s earlier Toccata, with more variety but a little less drive in the rhythmic energy. One striking passage is the descending slow single tones in octave displacement. This distinctly Russian-sounding piece displays an astounding talent. The repeated chords of the second movement are reminiscent of Russian Orthodox liturgical singing of a chanted, fragmented melody. The third movement brings to mind again the Toccata of Prokofiev, using some of the same thematic material from the first movement. The last movement also references the first, but more slowly and in a more reflective mood.

Nine Inventions, written in 1920–21, represent a dedicated approach to Tcherepnin’s nine-step scales. These pieces are very short and cleverly written with a didactic element strongly apparent—more obviously so than in JS Bach’s famous compositions of the same name. All but the last are written for two voices. They explore a variety of moods, but it is hard for the listener to escape the self-consciousness of the new compositional technique. The score (which, due to a plethora of accidentals, looks remarkably complicated for all its textural simplicity) reveals some intriguing devices. For instance, the eighth invention is a palindrome. When published by Eschig in 1925, it was fingered and edited by Tcherepnin’s piano teacher Isidor Philipp.

Sonata No 2, Op 94, has a highly interesting autobiographical nature. Tcherepnin’s biographer, Willi Reich, says this piece refers to a peculiar ringing that the composer had in his ears over the course of two and a half years. This caused him to hear two high pitches at the interval of a major second, and was a source of great consternation and fear that he would suffer the same fate as his father and grandfather of increasing deafness in old age, but this condition disappeared on its own. Written for the Berlin Festival over the course of ten days in 1961 and dedicated to his wife, this sonata represents Tcherepnin’s frightening experience, with great emphasis on the whole-step interval, including the structural connections between movements. Prominence is also given to the melodic interval of the descending third. Despite the technical aspects of the writing, its piquant harmonies and quirky textures, the piece presents a thoughtful and emotional experience. The melodies are always clear and singable—a plus for the listener. No one ever went home from a concert singing the harmonies.

The Ten Etudes, Op 18 stem primarily from Tcherepnin’s teen-aged years, contemporaneous and collected together from the same stock of pieces that yielded the Bagatelles. Tcherepnin later wondered at the “success of the Bagatelles over the other pieces of my youth written in the same circumstances by the same composer at the same time. After all, the Bagatelles were only a choice among hundreds of small piano compositions…10 Etudes and others belong to the same stock…It is a mystery to me.”

The First Etude has a Prokofievian melody over a bass line borrowed from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No 27, Op 90. This tune traverses through Chopinesque arpeggios and repeated chords with a Rachmaninov-like plangency before returning to the opening material. The Second Etude echoes early Rachmaninov before relieving tension by settling into a march; the Third is a much more menacing and intense march. The Fourth Etude is a study in trills, written in 1918 at the suggestion of Tcherepnin’s piano teacher. The Fifth begins as a study for arpeggios in opposing keys, then turns into an exercise in alternating hands and repeated chords. The Sixth Etude is an odd construction, beginning like a somewhat blurred Chopin Nocturne which is occasionally disrupted by Lisztian flourishes. The Seventh Etude is an athletic exercise for hand crossings; the Eighth is a scherzando affair ending with a dramatic downward whoosh. The Ninth Etude was the only one given a title by Tcherepnin—March—and an apt title, indeed! The Tenth Etude, written in St Petersburg during 1914, is a dark, ruminating work that would not be at all out of place in Prokofiev’s Visions fugitives which were written a little later (between 1915 and 1917). Incidentally, Prokofiev studied conducting under Tcherepnin’s father, Nikolay.

Alas, the expanse and detail of Tcherepnin’s life and work cannot be contained within the limits of these liners notes. For a more extensive biography of Alexander Tcherepnin, and information about his works and compositional techniques, visit the Tcherepnin Society website at www.tcherepnin.com.

Cary Lewis and Mark Gresham

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