About this Recording
GP658 - TCHEREPNIN, A.: Piano Music, Vol. 7 (Koukl)
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Alexander Tcherepnin (1899–1977)
Complete Piano Music • 7

 

The Russian-born composer, pianist and conductor Alexander Tcherepnin was raised in an artistic family. Through the Tcherepnins’ close relations with the Benois and Dyagilev 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 in 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.

Voeux (Wishes, but sometimes translated Prayers) Op. 39b was mostly written in 1927 at the same time as the enigmatic and powerful Message, Op 39, that can be heard in Volume 2 of this series. One wonders idly if there could be a hint in these pieces as to what the meaning of the Message might be. The first wish “for my Saint” is a charming gem of a slightly syncopated melody over a beautiful chord progression in the left hand. The second is “for my family.” Perhaps this describes a microcosm of a day in the life of the Tcherepnin family: sleep, waking, intense and boisterous activity, going back to sleep. The third wish is “for sentiment” (or perhaps better “for feeling”), a beautiful long-spun melody over an undulating accompaniment which poignantly expresses in sound the desire to be fully aware and affected by what is happening in life. The fourth wish is “for middle-class happiness”. It may be the best-known piece in this set, featuring a beautiful melody flowing freely in the right hand over a very steady and mellow left-hand accompaniment. The fifth wish “for work” was actually written four years earlier than the other wishes. It is basically one wistful motive undulating up and down the keyboard becoming more and more frantic and rhythmically complicated, but ending very simply and gently. The sixth wish is “for life”, starting low and full of promise as it marches up the keyboard to an insistent cacophony in the upper registers while the left hand tries to keep things more calm. Gradually the music winds back down and the cacophony descends to the lower extremes, then back up the keyboard to a very abrupt ending. The seventh wish is “for peace in the Middle East”. This piece was originally withdrawn after the military defeat of an Islamic leader who was viewed as a threat to Western civilization. It consists of a group of repeated notes interrupted by a short flurry of scampering notes searching for a resolution, but only succeeding in finding a new place to start the process all over again. After some very defiant notes, the piece ends innocently.

The Tcherepnin family was living in Paris when the Germans occupied that city and they had no choice but to remain there for the duration of the war. The composer acknowledges that this was the least productive period of his life. Phillip Ramey in the biographical note at www.tcherepnin.com points out that “Tcherepnin supported the family on his meagre earnings from composition lessons and what he called ‘utility music’.” He further quotes the composer: “To live through the Occupation was not easy, and I had to compose lots of trash—for dancers, for music halls, and so on, which had to be signed by another name because I was Russian.” Apparently one of those dance pieces is the Polka from 1944—a short and sassy affair. Perhaps even though the composer was displeased with much of his work of that period, he liked this one well enough to orchestrate it about ten years later. With its biting nods to bitonality, it sounds for all the world like a twin to the Polka from The Golden Age suite by Shostakovich. On the basis of this Polka and the Badinage which closes this disc, one wonders if perhaps Tcherepnin might not have been a little too hard on himself. These are both delightful pieces which doubtless brought a welcome bit of relief to life in war-time Paris.

The Études de concert written in 1920 (not to be confused with the Five Concert Études, Op. 52, recorded on Volume 4 [GP649]) is an early work from the composer’s Tiblisi days before he went to Paris, and was made available for this recording by the Tcherepnin Archive at the Sacher Foundation (www.paulsacher-stiftung). It is a sweeping set of arpeggiated chord progressions that bring to mind Ravel’s Ondine. But perhaps the most memorable aspect of watching a performance of this is to watch the pianist’s left hand ping-ponging across the right hand at incredible speed. The athleticism and marksmanship required make this music more appropriate for those pianists who are not overweight!

Canzona, Op. 28, from 1924 is a set of variations written while the composer was in Monte Carlo. It is apparently another one of Tcherepnin’s earliest works written in his special nine-step scale. (If the listener is curious about this, there is a thorough discussion on the www.tcherepnin.com website.) The beauty of this work is that the emphasis on compositional technique is totally hidden by the attractive inventiveness on display here. It begins like a simple duet, but quickly takes on a decadent quasi-Viennese flavour filled with bittersweet poignancy. This is followed in quick succession by a flowing variation that bubbles along cheerfully with two voices chasing each other around. The tone takes on a decidedly menacing turn with a snarling figure deep in the bass starkly contrasting the innocent lyrical duet high above it and in the middle of the piano. The final variation cuts the tension with a sprightly scherzo filled with sarcastic humour. There is a remarkable range of emotions in these three and a half minutes.

Autour des Montagnes Russes (Riding The Roller Coaster) has an interesting back story. In 1937 a prominent French publisher conceived of the idea of commissioning French composers to write some short pieces by eight important French composers to celebrate the Paris International Exposition in honour of the pianist Marguerite Long, the eminent French pedagogue. In an apparently good-natured response to that (and with the blessings of Marguerite Long herself), Tcherepnin suggested that the same sort of thing should be done by a group of foreign composers living in Paris. He was joined by Mihalovici, Harsányi, Honegger, Tansman, Rieti, Ernesto Halffter, Mompou, and Martinů in writing music that described the fun attractions at the Paris Exposition. The set was called L’Album – Parc d’attraction de l’Exposition 1937. Interestingly enough, both Tcherepnin and Martinů chose to write about the roller-coaster (called Russian Mountains in France, although in Russia, roller-coasters are called American mountains) which had been the subject of much discussion, particularly owing to some accidents. Tcherepnin’s contribution has four short sections which the composer describes as follows: “You go to the ticket office, you are frightened by rumours or of accidents, you don’t get on the train, and after watching the way it swings, go gaily home again.” It is interesting to compare this with Martinů’s Le Train hanté which Giorgio Koukl included in Volume 7 of his traversal of Martinů’s piano works [Naxos 8.572025].

The Toccata No. 2, Op. 20, was written in 1922, the year after the first Toccata (published as Op. 1). The first Toccata was composed for his farewell recital from Tiblisi, and the second one was written in his new Paris home. From listening to this, one can only surmise that the pianist has three hands, given the wide range of the three melodies and the tempo. Once again huge leaps and marksmanship are paramount. Arpeggiated figures in using the nine tone scale add to the excitement. The middle section begins more quietly and ruminates in the lower register of the piano before transporting its tension to a higher level. The final section is similar to the beginning, but it begins lightly and ends grandly.

Pastorale (1955) is a setting for piano alone taken from Tcherepnin’s cantata The Lost Flute (1954). As one might expect from subject matter based on classical and contemporary Chinese poems, this light-hearted music is filled with splashes of Oriental colour and pentatonic melodies, with a little exotic whole-tone interlude, and a hint of jazz rhythm near the end.

The posthumous Canon has also been transformed more than once. It began life as a String Trio, and was later used as the basis for Tcherepnin’s Cello Sonata No 2, Op. 30, No. 1. All of these versions were done around 1923–1924. It is fairly easy to imagine this as a string trio with the violin and viola canonizing cheerfully over a cello pizzicato. When the lower voice becomes smoother and more cantabile, the texture is more complicated and less easily understood. By the end there is a repeated low bass note that grounds all the polyphony happening above, bringing everything to a quiet close.

Dialogue from Suite géorgienne, Op. 57, is yet another example of Tcherepnin continuing to rework earlier material into later works. In this case he took a Georgian melody that he had composed for his first wife in 1933 and returned to in a version for piano and strings in 1938 with the addition of a good deal of filigree and embellishment. In 1952 he revisited the solo version from earlier but kept the added flowery passages from 1938. The music features a long melody over a single throbbing bass note with an accompaniment reminiscent of a Bach chorale-prelude. The dialogue is between the low and high melodies as they echo each other and expand on them. Then the decorated version begins with splashes of notes and a decidedly grand climax and then eventually settles gratifyingly back into the simple beginning.

Old St Petersburg is an unpublished manuscript made available for this recording by the Sacher Foundation. It stems from 1917, during the composer’s early days prior to the Russian Revolution and is a grand and glorious old-fashioned waltz with rich harmonies and lacy filigree tastefully intertwined. This is an astonishingly beautiful composition for such a young composer.

Also written in St Petersburg in 1917, likewise unpublished and made available for this recording by the Sacher Foundation, is the Ballade, which by Tcherepnin’s standards is a huge sprawling work that clocks in at almost nine minutes. Of his works for piano solo, only Message is longer. In true Ballade fashion, it is highly dramatic and somewhat episodic. One wonders what story the eighteen year old composer was illustrating with this sound picture. The pianism required is highly demanding, utilizing all the favourite Romantic devices for colour, excitement, and fiery display. One prominent feature is the use of repeated chords, sometimes highly rhythmic, and sometimes just for added excitement, often with rapid changes in register. Melodic motives are transported from one key centre to another. Octaves cascade in scenes of chaotic action. But there are also moments of graceful beauty (probably the feminine character in the story) and some dance episodes, as well. It ends with a long gentle murmuring and a slowly descending melody, leading the listener to wonder if someone has drowned tragically.

Souvenir de voyage is a great opportunity for armchair travellers who love music to test their acumen in a round of “Name That Tune!” Most people send picture postcards home to commemorate their travels. Sometimes composers pen sound pictures as well. Since there seemed to be nothing to be found about this piece in any sources, the best path for research was to contact Giorgio Koukl himself, who graciously responded. “Souvenir de voyage is a handwritten piece written by Tcherepnin for his wife and was not intended to be published. But I found the music so charming I couldn’t resist to insert it here. The work was intended to describe his travels as a pianist around the world, during which he would hear easily identifiable folk tunes running one into the other as if they were a chaotic illustration of his life ‘on tour’.” See how many countries you can identify!

In the Petite Suite, written around 1918 or 1919 and available in Volume 2 [GP632], Tcherepnin chose to name one of the pieces Badinage, owing to the charmingly frivolous nature of that short piece. The Badinage of 1941 was originally written for the Abyssinian ballet dancers Desta and Menen (who are worth researching because of their tangential relationship with French rock music) under the title Cloches et Clochettes. The little tinkling bells are immediately in evidence, later appearing over a persistent ding-dong in the middle range of the piano. Eventually the grandeur of the gigantic bells reminiscent of Tcherepnin’s young years living across from the cathedral in Russia, take over. The whole effect is quite humorous owing to the overwhelming treatment of very light musical material. This music is guaranteed to bring a welcome smile to listeners in occupied Paris. Hence the change of name to Badinage was entirely appropriate, and it brings this album to a delightful conclusion.


Cary Lewis and Mark Gresham


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