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GP649 - TCHEREPNIN, A.: Piano Music, Vol. 4 (Koukl)
ALEXANDER TCHEREPNIN (1899–1977)
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, Nikolai, was himself a respected conductor, pianist and composer who studied under Nikolai 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.
In order to develop a good understanding of the music on this album, and the music of Tcherepnin in general, it is a good idea to visit the fascinating website www.tcherepnin.com, an indispensable treasury of information about the family, the man and his music.
The set of ten pieces entitled Entretiens (Conversations), Op 46 is given the official date of 1930, but according to Benjamin Folkman, president of the Tcherepnin Society, it is (even at this late opus number) yet another one of those large collections of smaller works gathered from different parts of his life. This set has certain cinematic qualities which lead one to imagine a film for which these pieces would serve as background music. The opening Lento begins as a civil conversation with a slight tinge of the blues. Then passage-work becomes more exotic and the melodies are given colourful and unusual harmonies. A delightful dance in a seven-beat pattern over an ostinato bass returns the listener to the opening. The brief Animato has a wide-ranging left hand repeated pattern over which the conversation becomes a bit more fretful, but ends with a friendly gesture.
In the Moderato two conversationalists walk side by side throughout, although a disturbing topic becomes more and more insistent threatening to divide the friends to opposite ends of the keyboard before a truce brings them back together at the end in spite of the nagging reference to the point of contention. By the way, this piece was written when the young composer was still in Tiblisi before he went to Paris. The following Allegretto is more argumentative, with the combatants hurling obscenities at each other in the manner of two extremely aggressive cuckoo birds raising havoc in the evening.
Recitando is a very short conversation between a sophisticated rooster and a belltone which could easily be mistaken for a bored listener who does not care. But this sets up the next Animato, a fascinating rhythmic interplay with dueling melodic motives answering each other over a briefly rolling bass line. The Moderato which comes next is clearly the love theme of this set, even if one does not know that it apparently came from a New Year’s Day greeting to his first wife in 1927. Animato seems to be a moderately brilliant and bubbly escape from the unabashedly romantic previous piece. The Grave is much more tragic and dramatic, filled with pathos in the ostinato rhythm and intense harmonies. It ends fittingly with a repeated tone groveling in the bass—clearly a very intense argument. The final Allegretto leaves this tragic scene behind with repeated bird-like chords in the treble with distant allusions to the now calmer cuckoo birds of the earlier Allegretto, (which was written at the same time on Long Island in the late 1920s) as well as to the friends walking side by side in the third piece. The set ends with a cinematically appropriate gradual fade-to-black.
As an introduction to the Preludes, Op 85, one can do no better than to quote from the description given in the latest edition by Musikverlag M.P. Belaieff:
The Twelve Preludes (Chicago, 1952–53) show with vivid clarity the many-sided expressive genius of their composer. Each prelude is a musical entity, each has its own ‘raison d’être’, its own musical message. Taken as a whole, the twelve form a work with an exhaustive range of expression running the complete gamut of musical ideas; ideas which are, in the words of Alfred Frankenstein referring to these pieces, “pungent, lyrical and musico-philosophic”. All of the preludes are built in various compositional forms; some in ‘strict’ form, others in a free, unbounded or through-composed form. Throughout the twelve pieces are found numerous clever uses of stylistic rhythmic patterns and devices which characterize Tcherepnin’s music. The pieces stem from the period of Tcherepnin’s composition which is designated by many as his neo-romantic period, and are rich in singing, melodic lyricism; yet they are in essence fresh and completely ‘contemporary’ in style and content.
The opening Adagio is a thoughtful and solemn chorale enhanced by sinuous planing harmonies that are quite captivating. The end is surprisingly abrupt. Animato is a clattering of clangorous chords filled with nervous energy. By contrast the following Lento has an almost hollow beginning and maintains a high level of spookiness throughout. The staccato and rhythmic Allegro is a cocky, strutting affair. The Allegretto begins with a bright sunshiny mood with promise that this could be the love theme of this set, but it takes a serious turn before the end. Lento recitando begins as a nod to Chopin’s lovely so-called ‘Cello Etude’ but becomes decidedly more stentorian and pompous before a surprisingly light-hearted conclusion. The Animato is filled with nervous twitches that resist attempts to calm things down and become pretty violent before moderating slightly at the end. The serious Mesto which follows features a melodic line punctuated by growling chords in the bass. As one might suspect, this grows into something grand and tragic before winding down with a simple consolation.
Allegro was a piece that Tcherepnin himself liked to perform. It is filled with sounds of war—high, brittle metallic passages alternate with explosive thumps and thuds similar to the “With Pipes and Drums” movement from Bartók’s Out of Doors Suite. Lento marciale would be a great fanfare for a movie company to show at the beginning of each of its movies. It is grand, portentous, and has just the right amount of harmonic tension. At the onset Agitato brings to mind the last movement of Prokofiev’s great seventh sonata, but the tremendous tension suddenly is dissipated and replaced by a sense of calm inevitability. The closing Lento brings the set to a quiet end, starting with a melody in thirds and a warm settled feeling that grows ever more expansive and disappears into the ether.
One generally equates musical Romances with songs having lyrics of a tender, personal, and loving nature. By association, this term also is often applied to instrumental music that portrays the same kind of emotions. It is interesting to see if the Four Romances, Op 31 (1924), pieces fit into that general description. The opening Lento certainly does. It is peaceful and wistful—just the kind of sweet music that one would expect for a piece with this title. The title of the second movement Tempo risoluto hints that this may be a different kettle of fish, and, indeed, it opens with a menacing melody over a rhythmic repeated note in the left hand. It becomes quickly apparent that this song is resolutely built on Tcherepnin’s special scale. It descends to the tenor range of the piano while the right hand turns in some brilliant and scintillating passage-work high in the upper register. Eventually things settle down and end like the beginning. But one could hardly characterize the general mood here as one of tenderness and warmth. Heat, perhaps, but not warmth. Allegro begins with a very singable melody projected over repeated chords of ambiguous tonality. The mood is lighter than that of the second romance, and stands as a breath of fresh air with slightly disturbing harmonies buzzing in the background. The fourth, Andantino, begins peacefully enough with a lovely theme in the treble which is answered in the bass. But the gentle trill that is so lovely and calming at the beginning gradually grows in intensity until all sense of calm is shattered with clashing chords and a very abrupt unorthodox cadence. One wonders if the heady experiences and unsettled times of Paris in the early 1920s gave the young composer a jaded view of romance.
On the other hand, the Five Concert Etudes, Op 52, show an infatuation with all things Chinese, and one particular young Chinese pianist in particular. While on a tour to the Far East Tcherepnin became so enchanted with China and its people and its culture that he stayed there far longer than he had planned. He was there from 1934 to 1937 and during that time was a distinguished professor and also worked in a government position to help young composers preserve native styles in modern forms. These five etudes are among several sets of works in which he himself pursued that goal. They are inspired by Chinese folk-instruments and are based on pentatonic scales. Shadow Play is a picture in sound of a popular form of entertainment and story-telling that used flat puppets against a translucent screen. The Lute is based on a story in which the resonating strings of the Chinese guqin are imitated by Tcherepnin to represent the bonds of friendship between a woodcutter and a mandarin. Homage to China was dedicated to the aforementioned young Chinese pianist Lee Hsien-Ming, whom Tcherepnin later married. This is a very effective transliteration of the music of the pipa, a sort of Chinese mandolin. Punch and Judy once again refers to a popular tune used in puppet theatre productions. Chant is a simple melody repeatedly interrupted by a metallic gong or cymbal. The melody is reiterated several times with increasingly complicated layers of figuration adding more transliterations of percussion instruments (reminiscent of some of Debussy’s essays imitating Oriental music). This set of Etudes is brought to a close with a great apotheosis triumphantly combining elements from the earlier pieces in the set.
The Tcherepnin Society was established by his widow Hsien-Ming Tcherepnin to help preserve the shared ideals of folk-music from different cultures. Under her leadership the organization played an important rôle in re-normalizing musical contacts between China and the West after the disruptions of the Cultural Revolution. In fact, as the website of the Tcherepnin Society points out, “Alexander Tcherepnin’s view of music as a moral force that breaks down artificial barriers between peoples has a special relevance in our own troubled times.”
Cary Lewis and Mark Gresham
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