About this Recording
GP651 - TCHEREPNIN, A.: Piano Music, Vol. 6 (Koukl)
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Alexander Tcherepnin (1899–1977)
Complete Piano Music • 6


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 music in this album stems from three particularly fertile periods of Tcherepnin’s composing career, the 1920s when he was still young and in the process of establishing himself as a young pianist and composer to be reckoned with, the period just before the Second World War, and finally the period after the War was over and his creative abilities returned.

The Songs Without Words, Op. 82, were written in Chicago in 1949–51. The opening Elegy is a mournful melody harmonized effectively with massive but not ponderous chords that fit the mood of the title perfectly. Rondel seems to be based on the fourteenth century French poetic form in which there are three stanzas, with the first two lines of the first stanza reappearing as a refrain within the second and third. This is a cheerful and satisfying couple of minutes. Enigma has an engaging opening that is treated to a constantly wandering harmonization which makes for enjoyable listening, but the ending has a certain “Say what?” quality that befits the title accurately. The Juggler is a characteristic piece, cheerful, with short jabbing chords and repeated notes and occasional splashes and swoops and a certain amount of rising tension. Hymn to our Lady is based on a Georgian liturgical theme which is heard throughout the piece, first in the treble, then in the middle register accompanied by a prancing countermelody. Then comes a more noble iteration with richer harmonies with a brief interlude of relative transparency.

The Song and Refrain, Op. 66, was written in 1939–40 but was not given its première until 1944, interestingly enough by the twenty year old pianist Yvonne Loriod, who many years later became the wife of Olivier Messiaen. The beautiful Song sounds for all the world like a fanciful treatment of the Christmas carol Silent Night with florid figuration similar to Chopin’s Barcarolle. The Refrain has very few bar lines and consequently keeps the listener guessing about how the music is rhythmically organized, but this guessing game is an attractive proposition among the bells and the jaunty syncopations that are full of fun.

The programme notes in the published score of Le monde en vitrine, Op. 75, (which is translated as “Show-case”) are a very revealing glimpse into the active imagination that seems to be so prevalent in the music of Russian composers and performers. This set of five pieces was written in 1946 to depict musically some of the figurines in a showcase belonging to Madame Amos, a famous patroness of the arts in Paris. The style is very reminiscent of Stravinsky.

“The first movement is inspired by a group of miniature greyhounds in glass, which in the show-case stands next to a massive porcelain cow. The greyhounds are full of action, whilst the cow is placid. This contrast inspired the composer. How often in life is our enthusiasm thwarted by something as placid as a cow!

The second movement presents the crabs. We can picture two crabs seeing one another from afar and approaching each other backwards. There are two versions: one for the children wherein the crabs devour one another (which is true to zoological law), the other for adults, which we leave to their imagination, and which is equally faithful to the laws of nature. Assuming that the second version takes place, the frog which is next to the crabs begins to gossip, thus scandalizing all the creatures in the show-case. The uproarious noise of the poultry, followed by the scurrying of the weasel provides the rhythm of the fourth movement..”

The programme notes go on to describe the time when Tcherepnin was confronted by a deer while walking in the forest. “Both stopped and stared, but only for a few seconds. Thanks to the music we shall know the thoughts of Tcherepnine (sic), but we shall never know those of the deer, which swiftly fled.” This confrontation of the human world and the animal world brings this piece to an end.

La Quatrième was written in 1948–49 for an album by the Ecole de Paris which never came out. The title refers to the Fourth Republic which was born after World War II. A grand and noble opening is followed by a brief innocent interlude, which is immediately followed by a cascade of pealing bells with hints of Messiaenic colours and harmonies. Just before the coda if one listens carefully there appears a brief quotation from the Marseillaise.

The Two Novelettes, Op. 19 were written in suburban Paris in 1921–22. The first Novelette features a brooding melody in the lower register of the piano under an undulating accompaniment somewhat reminiscent of Chopin’s Prelude No. 2 in A minor with the hands reversed. After the left hand assumes the rôle of undulation, the music becomes increasingly unsettled and frantic before subsiding to end as it began, gradually rising to the upper registers. The second Novelette begins quixotically with a three note pattern that Tcherepnin plays around with until it gradually increases in intensity into a grand pealing of bells. He also uses his special exotic scales liberally in both of these Novelettes.

Prayer is apparently unpublished and is played from a manuscript provided to Giorgio Koukl by the Tcherepnin Society. It begins with a plaintively harmonized prayer that quickly becomes quite impassioned. Then, as if embarrassed by the outburst, the opening mood returns, but once again a sense of urgency returns with heightened pathos.

Rondo à la Russe seems to be a bit of a mystery piece. We know that it was written in 1946 and that there is also an orchestral version that has never been published. The main theme to which the Rondo keeps returning is a warm, folk-like, imminently singable tune that is immediately appealing. The harmonization grows more lush and inventive at each return. As one would expect, the alternative tunes are contrasting in moods but related motivically. This is a three-minute gem.

The Slavic Transcriptions, Op. 27, were written in Monte Carlo in 1924 at the suggestion of Tcherepnin’s teacher and mentor Isidor Philipp. They are bravura settings of folk themes. The justly famous and popular Volga Boatman’s Song waits patiently in the wings through a protracted grey and meandering introduction, before making an appearance in the low range of the the piano, with varied accompaniments. A sudden excursion into the upper ranges, followed by confusion and rolling adverse currents gradually subsides to a simple unadorned melody with the hands far apart. The last note of the melody starts a fascinating chord progression that brings the boat to a satisfying landing. Song for the Beloved is a happy melody with a very, very busy accompaniment. There is also a grand treatment with octaves and crashing chords. A Petrouchka-like passage is followed by a return to a gradually accelerating busy accompaniment similar to the beginning.

The third song in this set is called Song from Great Russia, but a later title was simply Russian Song. The tune itself is quite short and is repeated quite a few times with a characteristic rhythm. Here, too, one could easily imagine that this music might have escaped from Stravinsky’s Petrouchka. Along the Banks of the Volga begins with meandering sounds under the melody that could easily represent the water lapping onto the shore. There may even be a veiled reference to the Volga Boatman in there somewhere. The harmonies become more massive and ponderous before oozing to a close. Czech Song is a Percy Grainger-ish light-hearted and jaunty romp through the musical landscape, with offbeat and syncopated riffs that bring this album to an engaging close.

Cary Lewis and Mark Gresham

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