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GP635 - TCHEREPNIN, A.: Piano Music, Vol. 3 (Koukl)
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Alexander Tcherepnin (1899–1977)
Complete Piano Music • 3


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 Eight Pieces for Piano, Op 88 (1954–55) are representative of the works Tcherepnin wrote after moving to Chicago. As Phillip Ramey points out in his biographical notes at www.tcherepnin.com, during this time the composer was consciously trying to synthesize all the previous elements of his style—the instinctive, the simplified, the systematic and synthetic, and the folkloristic.

It would be fun to see what an experienced storyteller could do using this music to make his tales come alive! Meditation is a lush and peaceful sonic tapestry that by turns evolves into bells, hints at something ominous, and settles a bit quixotically back into the opening music. The Intermezzo opens with nervous twitches that gradually become insistent and metallic. This is followed by a gorgeous Reverie featuring hazy and dreamy music with flashes of light and color. Impromptu is a kaleidoscope of moods—a sassy march with surprising silences (as if the performer is wondering what to do next). Invocation brings to mind a Russian Orthodox priest chanting in a solemn religious ceremony, with bells tinkling in the background. The Chase is a bustling, busy affair with lots of repeated chords that hearken back to Ibert’s Little White Donkey. There is nothing more ominous here than a light-hearted game of tag. Etude, on the other hand brings a brief excursion into noise and tumult and seriousness. There is no unbridled fun and joy in the closing Burlesque, which reminds the listener of the uneasy feelings one often experiences around carnivals or circus clowns.

Feuilles libres, Op 10 (1920) comes from the composer’s years spent in Tiblisi, Georgia, while he and his family were refugees from events in Petrograd. The music is heavy with the mournful Russian spirit. These are beautiful, but mostly bleak evocations of sorrow. The only departure from this mood in this set is the exciting third piece, which seems to depict a joyous sleigh ride that gets out of hand—driving too fast for conditions.

The Quatre Préludes nostalgiques, Op 23 (1922) are very aptly named miniatures. The first (Lento) features a wistful melody placed in the upper stratosphere of the piano over a gently brooding repetitive left hand figure. The second (Allegretto) is very short—a simple melodic line over an undulating accompaniment. There are just a few phrases and the piece is over—a fleeting memory. The third (Tempestoso) is quite different in tone with a stormy beginning setting up a short stretch of nostalgia which quite effectively alters the mood of the final reprise of the opening. The fourth prelude (Con dolore) begins with a mournful tune in the tenor range which is repeated on progressively lower pitch levels. This is followed by a rhapsodic peaceful melody that becomes more and more bell-like and ecstatic before a final brief return to the opening mood.

The Quatre Préludes, Op 24 (1922–23) are similar to Op 23, but not so uniformly nostalgic. The first (Giocoso) features a rhythmic (long, short-short, long) motive for a melody. In the middle a galloping accompaniment adds to the excitement. Of course, the musical language involves Tcherepnin’s unique nine-note scales. The second (Adagio) has a left-hand accompaniment reminiscent of Chopin’s Prelude No 2, although it explores more distant harmonies. The plaintive melody ends surprisingly and inconclusively. The third (Allegretto) is more gently cheerful and sounds like a music box. Tcherepnin also arranged this for two flutes! The fourth (Allegro) is a more serious affair, starting with a fugue-like reference to the rhythmic motive of the first prelude, but building in tension as it rises in pitch level. There is definitely the feeling of a knotted brow here!

Intermezzo, Op 33a, sounds as if it would fit in very well in Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet ballet. It is well constructed and a convincing argument for the artistic merit of strong craftsmanship. Once again the unique scale construction technique is clearly there, but that is not the reason we enjoy listening to this rollicking, slightly warped sounding march. This is one of Tcherepnin’s revisions of his own larger concerted works for piano solo. It was originally written in 1924 as the slow movement for the Schott Prize-winning Concerto da Camera for flute, violin and chamber orchestra.

Tanz, Op 44a, is a gold mine for those who want to delve into the complex intricacies of Tcherepnin’s craft and compositional technique—all of which are chronicled in depth on his page at the website of the Tcherepnin Society (www.tcherepnin.com). This is a 1928 transcription for solo piano of the second movement of his Piano Quintet, written in 1927. This a delightfully perverse work filled with pointillistic flashes and slashing repeated chords with primitive irregular accents. It could easily be a longer piece without wearing out its welcome.

The Seven Etudes, Op 56 (1938) were written after Tcherepnin had visited the Far East on concert tours and had met his second wife Lee Hsien Ming. These pieces seem to have a didactic purpose, but are so expertly written that it is not immediately obvious what techniques are being explored. The opening Moderato alternates major scales, with pentatonic tunes, and chromatic motives. The second Allegro is more obviously a five-finger exercise but the changing beat patterns make it really fun to listen to. The Allegro marciale is also very attractive as it juxtaposes a variety of touches and textures. The fourth etude (Allegro) seems to be primarily a trill exercise with emphasis on the weaker fingers of each hand. Allegro risoluto is another five-finger exercise disguised by pleasant syncopation. Allegro moderato is a musical treat that requires constant changes of fingers on repeated notes in order to flow properly. The final etude (Andantino) returns to the occasional pentatonic melody with active finger patterns and scales for embellishment.

In the words of the composer, the music of Expressions is “subjective and dynamic, meant to give scope to a performer’s expression of his own feeling in relation to the musical content of the pieces.” And indeed there is much opportunity here for creative expression. This is almost like a miniature of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. The Entrance is a strutting introduction to the contrasting pictures that are to follow. The Hour of Death has much in common with Mussorgsky’s Catacombs. The Caprice is bright and cheerful, with an insistent cuckoo bird interrupting near the end. The Silly Story of the White Oxen is whimsical, and the Thief in the Night is spooky, with the malevolent pianist sneaking around the keyboard, clearly up to no good. The Barcarole could easily be imagined as a sailboat rocking gently in calm seas until a rising wind makes the sails billow out proudly. Blind Man’s Bluff is appropriately playful, and begs comparison to Robert Schumann’s piece by the same name in his Scenes from Childhood. At Dawn is a highly evocative presentation of twittering birds awakening with the sun. And the final piece is a slightly out-of-kilter staggering toward the Exit with a final triumphant return to reality after all these excursions into the world of imagination.

Cary Lewis and Mark Gresham

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