About this Recording
GP632 - TCHEREPNIN, A.: Piano Music, Vol. 2 (Koukl)
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Alexander Tcherepnin (1899–1977)
Complete Piano Music • 2


The Russian-born composer, pianist and conductor Alexander Tcherepnin was raised in an artistic family. Through the Tcherepnins’ close relations with the Benois and Dyaghilev 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 the 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 Tiblisi, Georgia, to escape famine, cholera, and the political turmoil of the Russian Revolution. They abandoned Tiblisi in 1921 when Georgia was 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 Conservatoire, and launched his international career. Tcherepnin travelled extensively to the United States, Japan, and China. It was in the last that he met his wife, the pianist Lee Hsien Ming. They had three sons, Peter, Serge and Ivan, and remained in France throughout World War II, moving to the United States in 1948. Tcherepnin spent most of the rest of his life travelling between the United States and Europe. He died in Paris in 1977.

The greater part of the music on this disc consists of the earliest numbers in Tcherepnin’s catalogue of works, from Opus 1 to Opus 8. The Sonatine romantique, Op 4, was apparently written during four days in Holy Week in 1918, when the composer was still a teenager. Svetlana Yashirin, in her A manifestation of Apollonian ecumenism in selected piano works of Alexander Tcherepnin (1899–1977), describes this sonata as an example of Russian proclivity toward programme music. The first movement begins with a somewhat menacing simple repetitive theme lurking in the bass amid triplets, trills, and exotic nine-note scales. The second theme is equally simple, but in the treble and more optimistic. The movement is rounded off by beautiful chords that descend to a final, somewhat tamer appearance of the opening theme in the lower register of the piano. The second movement is marked by busy scintillating figuration decorating a folk-like tune. It is a free adaptation of one of Tcherepnin’s early songs that brings to mind the exhilaration present in so many troikas. The third movement is said to be a sonic picture of the Easter Sunday bells of the Saint Nicholas Cathedral across the street from the composer’s house at the time. They start quietly with lush, almost impressionistic harmonies and gradually become more and more grand. It is an interesting contrast to the more clangorous bells of Rachmaninov’s Easter, from his first suite for two pianos. The fourth movement revisits material from the first movement with stormy figuration. Even the beautiful descending chords appear, but this time with decidedly more menacing effect. Perhaps it is a picture of the disturbing political events of the time.

The Petite Suite, Op 6, is apparently another collection (similar to the better known Bagatelles, Op 5) of a few of the short pieces the young Alexander brought with him to Paris when his family moved from Georgia. The March lives up to its name with trumpet calls and tramping feet starting in the distance, passing by, and fading away. The Song Without Words is a haunting melody that starts simply and becomes more complex. The dramatic ending hints at some sort of tragic event. The Berceuse is a very convincing presentation of a slightly lopsided cradle with a restless baby who falls asleep at the end. The Scherzo brings to mind a lighthearted version of Prokofiev’s driving Toccata. Badinage is a brief episode of delightfully frivolous banter. Finally, the Humoresque could be described, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, as a “trill of a lifetime”.

Toccata, Op 1, seems to correspond more to the works of that name by J. S. Bach than to the more obviously technical works of that title. It relies heavily on cascading broken chords that use both the major and minor modes of triads over a long pedal tone in the bass. This introduces a menacing four-note theme that sounds like Bach’s signature in the Art of Fugue, but is not an exact quotation. This theme then appears in a more lyrical contrapuntal section, in the manner of Bach’s toccatas. A return to the opening section is in octaves, such as might have been done in transcriptions of Bach’s organ works for the piano with coupling stops. By necessity, this has to go slower, but reaches a stunning climax. A final appearance of the “almost BACH” theme just before the end seems to give a nod to the ending of Rachmaninov’s famous Prelude in C sharp minor.

The Pièces sans titres, Op 7, (Pieces without Titles) are eight more miniature gems from Tcherepnin’s youth that average barely over a minute in length each. The opening Allegro features a lighthearted gently galloping theme over repeated chords. The Allegretto has a delightful melody over a quirky tick-tock accompaniment. The Moderato is a bit more serious. The brooding melody is given increasingly turbulent accompaniment in the left hand, but settles back down at the end. The Andantino is like a poignant Russian folk-tune surrounded by unsettling and eerie chords reminiscent of Prokofiev. In contrast to this, the Allegro molto is a sweeping broken chord constantly repeated over clangorous bells. The agitation is palpable. The Sostenuto has much the same feel to it as the Andantino with a simple melody and undulating harmonies, but a calmer atmosphere. A second Allegretto, cocky and perky, is followed by a mischievous and impertinent Impetuoso that reminds the listener of a highly truncated version of Ravel’s Scarbo.

It is interesting to compare Opus 2 and Opus 8. Both were written in 1919, and both consist of a Nocturne and Dance. Opus 2 represents Russian Romantic music hearkening back to Scriabin. The Nocturne is not a peaceful affair, but is filled with foreboding, constantly repeating a motive resembling the Dies irae. Similarly the Dance is akin to Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz filled with intensity and some stunning metallic sonorities.

The Nocturne in Opus 8 begins and ends calmly with something that reminds the listener of the second Chopin Prelude No 2, Op 28, but in the middle there is a significant excursion into the world of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1. The ensuing Dance is based on a related theme that is taken through a variety of excursions with repeated chords, broken chords, and even a little “boom-chink” into what appears to be significant disintegration, before returning to the beginning and a very satisfying typical Russian chord progression to end it all.

The Scherzo, Op 3, written in 1917, is a rhythmic affair with more emphasis on energetic repeated chords and less emphasis on melody, except for the middle section. There seems to be some experimentation with quartal harmony with some passages that would not be out of place in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.

This recording concludes with a rather large leap forward in time to the Message, Op 39, written in 1926. This is perhaps the longest single movement in Tcherepnin’s catalogue of works for piano solo. It represents a high point in the distillation of his style with emphasis on rhythm, his preference for exotic scales, and what he called “interpoint”. (For a more complete explanation see the “basic elements” under “Alexander” at www.tcherepnin.com.) This is rhythm for the sake of rhythm, ending with three sharp raps on the wood of the piano. Because of the title of this piece, one wonders if there is some sort of telegraph code hidden in the varying rhythms. This is a large structure instead of the usual tight and easily identifiable ABA form featured in the miniature works on this album. The intensity of listening to this music is unrelenting, even in the quieter passages. This is music for serious listeners and requires close attention to hear the interplay of the various elements.

Cary Lewis and Mark Gresham

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