About this Recording
GP659 - TCHEREPNIN, A.: Piano Music, Vol. 8 (Koukl)
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Alexander Tcherepnin (1899–1977)
Complete Piano Music • 8


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.

In keeping with the theme of “Music for Children” in this the final album of the complete piano works of Alexander Tcherepnin, the first set of pieces included here, Pours petits et grands (For Young and Old), Op. 65, was originally entitled Music for Those of a Young Age. Luckily the title was changed to allow the rest of us to enjoy the music as well without feeling guilty. These works are popular in France. The set starts off immediately with a display of diligence (La Diligente) that brings to mind the adage, “He who keeps his nose to the grindstone has a very sharp nose!” Perhaps this comment was made by the Joker subject of the second piece, Le Farceur. A charming melody (La Mélodieuse) gives way to a study in contrasts between sharp pointed comments and smooth interludes (Les Contrastes). Les Cloches tristes (Sad Bells) are supremely tragic, but are counterbalanced by the babbling of a chatterbox (La Babillarde). This is followed by a trip into the doldrums (L’Affligée), before heading off to Spain (L’Ibérienne). An obstinate ostinato (La Persévérante) leads to a hymn of devotion (La Dévouée). This is followed by Les Plaisirs du Toutou a song in praise of an enthusiastic, sometimes barking dog. One can clearly hear the dog thinking “Oh boy, oh boy—my favourite!” The set ends with a peaceful and graceful allusion to the fairy tale of the Sleeping Beauty (La Belle au Bois dormant).

Tcherepnin was among the many, many people who were fascinated with the story of St Theresa of the Infant Jesus. He was influenced by the call for her to be honoured with sainthood. He wrote several compositions based on her poetry and her life and what she stood for. According to some accounts, a young seven-year-old girl named Edith Piaf was cured from blindness after a trip to her grave in 1922. This little suite, Histoire de la Petite Thérèse, recounts in the simplest of terms the events in the life of the young girl and her journey toward sainthood not by great deeds, but in a “little way”. There is much introspection, devotion, and reverence in this set that was written in 1925, the year of St Theresa’s canonization.

The twelve Episodes (Priskaski) take us all the way back to Tcherepnin’s childhood and adolescence. These were more of the little pieces he had with him in his suitcase when he showed up in Paris as a youth. His teacher Isidor Philipp, who counselled him so wisely in making his pieces available to the public, suggested the title Episodes. Apparently the young composer was not totally satisfied with that title, so he added the subtitle Priskaski (Short Stories) to be a bit more descriptive. The years of composition range from 1912 for the Scherzando, to 1920 for the Moment musical. Of particularly peculiar interest in these pieces, all of which are quite lovely, are the exotic Armenian slow dance, and the fluttering Papillon (Butterfly), and the rhythmically off-kilter Capriccio.

The three Suites of Opus 51 from 1934–35 are collectively called The Piano Method on the Pentatonic Scale, which is so indelibly associated with Oriental music. The first set is the easiest of the groups, and the second set is more moderately difficult. The third set is called Twelve Chinese Bagatelles and is dedicated to the ten young pianists who played Tcherepnin’s Bagatelles, Op 5, in a concert in Peking while the composer was enjoying his time in China. The eleventh Chinese Bagatelle was dedicated to the teacher of the ten pianists, and the twelfth was dedicated to Tcherepnin’s pipa teacher. They were given their première in Paris in 1935. These pieces have been called a “Chinese Mikrokosmos.” The first set has an interesting set of titles that perhaps acknowledges the interest in contemporary European music (western dance forms, processions of monks, and village church fairs) that existed side-by-side with the older more traditional music in China of the mid-1930s. Tcherepnin made a concerted effort to explore the possibilities of Chinese musical tradition. He even set up his own publishing firm to promote works of young Chinese and Japanese composers. The other sets dispensed with the descriptive titles, leaving it up to the performer and listeners to figure out what might be going on in the music. The Second Suite is more overtly Chinese, with effective imitations of traditional instruments, and even intimations of Chinese opera and the aptly named Chinese Bagatelles go all out in their salute to Chinese instruments, percussion and plucked. Some of these pieces are wistful, some are highly energetic, but all are cheerful and smile-inducing

The 17 Piano Pieces for Beginners were written for a prominent series of teaching pieces edited by Frances Clark called Contemporary Piano Literature. These little pieces have such delightfully descriptive titles that very little needs to be said about them. There is much wisdom, humour, and taste encapsulated in these gems. A couple of alternative titles might be irreverently suggested here: Merry-go-round might be called the Music Box, and Ivan’s Accordion, with its sly allusions to other grand Russian pieces, might just as well be Ivan’s Harmonica.

The Two Pieces for Children stem from the year 1976 and were included in an album called Piano Compositions, USA. Celebration features cocky octave leaps, and Indian Trail is just awkwardly jaunty enough to bring to mind someone who is not particularly comfortable riding his Indian pony.

Because it closes a circle in so many ways, it seems somehow entirely appropriate to draw this traversal of Tcherepnin’s music for piano to a close with Sunny Day, subtitled “Forgotten Bagatelle”. Apparently the composer found and copied out this little work from 1915 on the day he died. It is brimming with optimism and an enthusiasm for life that is totally appropriate to the sunny title—a spirit of “go forth and conquer!”

Cary Lewis and Mark Gresham

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