by Walter Simmons
A. TCHEREPNIN Piano Music 1913-61 ● Alexander Tcherepnin, Mikhail Shilyaev (pns) ● TOCCATA CLASSICS TOCC-0079 (79:48)
Sonata No. 1. Sonata No. 2. Quatre Préludes Nostalgiques. Prelude, Op. 85, No. 9. Moment Musical . Petite Suite. Rondo à la Russe. Entretiens. Polka. Scherzo. Expressions. La Quatrième
Alexandre Tcherepnin (1899-1977) was a composer and pianist, a significant figure within a multi-generational sequence of composers and musicians. His father, Nikolai (1873-1945), was a composer, conductor, and pianist, who studied with Rimsky-Korsakov. His son Serge (b. 1941) has been active as a protagonist of avant-garde and electronic composition. His other son Ivan (1943-1998) pursued similar stylistic interests before his premature demise. Ivan’s son Stefan (b. 1977) is a visual artist, as well as a composer, who has explored a variety of postmodern styles. Ivan’s other son Sergei (b. 1981) is also active in pursuing an avant-garde fusion of multiple artistic media.
Alexandre was a thoroughly cosmopolitan figure. Born in St. Petersburg, he fled with his family to Tbilisi, Georgia, in 1917 to escape the consequences of the Soviet revolution, then moved to Paris four years later, where he associated himself with a number of other expatriate composers, and attempted to launch a career as pianist and composer. Traveling to China and Japan during the 1930s, he met the pianist Lee Hsien Ming, who was to become his (second) wife. During the late 1940s they came to America, settling in Chicago, where he became a distinguished member of the composition faculty at DePaul University. Perhaps his most notable protégés are Robert Muczynski and Phillip Ramey. He moved to New York in 1964, spending the rest of his life traveling back and forth between there and Europe.
Revered by his students, Tcherepnin was a highly sophisticated creative figure, but he seemed never to emerge from the shadows of his more celebrated elder compatriots, Stravinsky and Prokofiev. Whether his creative gifts were truly dwarfed by theirs, or whether his relative obscurity was an unjustly unfortunate outcome of a historical quirk is hard to say. But this recent release certainly provides additional data, which is likely to be interpreted by some as supporting one evaluation, and by others as supporting the alternative.
A noteworthy aspect of this recording is that a little less than half of its running time is devoted to recordings made in 1965 that feature the composer himself at the keyboard. Phillip Ramey, then 26, was producing a radio documentary on his former teacher for the Columbia University radio station WKCR. Ramey had persuaded Tcherepnin to record several of his works, including his two piano sonatas, all of which would be featured in the documentary. The recordings were accomplished over the course of one long night, with minimal opportunity for re-takes and editing, engineered by the erstwhile Walter Carlos, before he had achieved celebrity as the creator of “Switched-On Bach.” Although Tcherepnin was to record some of the same music for an EMI release two years later, he himself felt that the WKCR recordings revealed a certain reckless abandon missing from the more cautious commercial release. Although the 45-year-old master tapes required much restorative work, which was executed meticulously by Allen Tucker, the result sounds remarkably free of obvious technical deficiencies. In fact, the transition to the remainder of this Toccata release, featuring an assortment of pieces recorded in London in 2012 by the young Russian pianist Mikhail Shilyaev, is barely noticeable. Many of these shorter pieces have never been recorded before, and embrace most of Tcherepnin’s compositional career.
There is a distinct difference in the characters of the two piano sonatas, as compared with the shorter pieces. The sonatas, composed more than 40 years apart, are decidedly aggressive works. The first, composed in 1918-19, clearly reveals the fingerprints of Prokofiev. Beginning with a powerful introduction, the first movement pursues a muscular fugal development, emphasizing the extremes of the keyboard, before coming to a quiet ending. The second movement begins with repeated major triads, around which an unusual melody is intertwined. This leads directly into a pugnacious Allegro,after which a finale, marked Grave,offers sober reflections on the preceding material. Tcherepnin’s playing is quite strong, perhaps even a little heavy-handed at times.
The Sonata No. 2 is a more concise work, composed within a period of ten days in 1961. It is the latest work to appear on the program. From the outset it proclaims a much freer approach to tonality, along with a higher level of harmonic dissonance and a greater angularity of thematic material. But like its predecessor it is largely emphatic and aggressive, taking the language of Prokofiev into more rarefied and complex territory than the elder composer ever ventured. However, the work ends softly and rather quizzically. Unfortunately, the actual musical result is not always as compelling as its elements might suggest. Throughout much of his creative life, Tcherepnin experimented with synthetic scale-forms as well as a number of rhythmic and textural innovations. But the listener who is unaware of these procedures is not likely to notice anything that deviates significantly from the familiar post-Prokofiev approach to keyboard composition in the mid-20th century. Reflecting on these two sonatas, it occurred to me that if one views Tcherepnin’s more ambitious works as complex extensions of Prokofiev in his most forceful efforts, one might then view Phillip Ramey’s own large and impressive keyboard output (much of which has been recently released on Toccata) as a further extension of the general language pursued by Tcherepnin.
Also on the recording are three collections of tiny recital pieces, each averaging barely a minute, many of them within the grasp of most intermediate-level pianists. Although the influence of both Stravinsky and, especially, Prokofiev are undeniable throughout Tcherepnin’s output, equally—and sometimes more than equally—evident are the fingerprints of Debussy, especially in these shorter pieces. Thus this music illustrates the familiar Franco-Russian aesthetic alliance with unusual clarity. This is especially true of Petite Suite, six pieces composed at the same time as the Sonata No. 1; the third of these, “Berceuse,” is particularly beautiful. Entretiens (or Conversations) comprises ten pieces, written at various points during the 1920s. These embrace some of the exotic modes that intrigued the composer as a result of his explorations of non-Western music. But unlike the sonatas, they display an ingratiating accessibility that points to their utility in a wide range of recital contexts. Much the same may be said about Expressions, another group of ten pieces, composed in 1951. Here Tcherepnin again attempted to integrate his experiments in scale forms and more complex meters with some of the usages derived from folk-styles. But the key word here is “integration”: the listener is much more aware of an overall congeniality of impact than of compositional details.
The remaining short pieces highlight one or another of the concerns discussed in relation to the collections noted above. Four Nostalgic Preludes date from 1922, and are among those pieces recorded by the composer for the radio documentary. They are attractive morsels, the sadly romantic “Con dolore, molto sostenuto” being a particular favorite. The tiny Prelude, Op. 85, No. 9, became one of Tcherepnin’s most popular recital pieces. Moment Musical is notable as the work of a 14-year-old, and offers a rather sophisticated treatment of a very primitive melody. Rondo à la Russe reveals strong traces of Stravinsky. The Polka of 1944 is an encore-type piece, lighter in tone, simpler in conception, and more accessible in language. Cluster chords are used to create a burlesque effect. Scherzo, composed in 1918, before the composer had reached the age of 20, is largely a toccata-like effort in moto perpetuo, interrupted by a more lyrical B-section. It provides an especially clear illustration of the lineage linking Debussy to Prokofiev to Tcherepnin. La Quatrième was composed during the late 1940s, to celebrate the establishment of the Fourth Republic in France. A grand opening statement is followed by polytonal passages, cluster harmony, and even a faint reminiscence of La Marseillaise.
Russian pianist Mikhail Shilyaev is especially effective in embracing Tcherepnin’s own approach to his keyboard music. Program notes by Tcherepnin-specialist Benjamin Folkman are brilliantly informative, and offer penetrating insights. To the listener interested in exploring the composer’s major works, I recommend the budget priced 4-CD set on BIS, which features all four symphonies and six piano concertos, along with some shorter works.