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ClassicsOnline Home » TCHEREPNIN, A.: Piano Music, Vol. 5 (Koukl)
Volume 5 of Alexander Tcherepnin’s complete piano music focuses on miniatures written at both ends of his career. The Eight Preludes, nicknamed the “little fleas” on account of their frequent leaps, and the exotic Arabesques were among the pieces the young composer brought to Paris from Tiblisi in his suitcase. Written during the last decade of the composer’s life, the mostly unknown and unpublished Twelve Pieces contain evocative scenes of childhood, while Opivochki or “Little Leftovers” are among his last works.
Alexander Tcherepnin (1899–1977)
Complete Piano Music • 5
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 nearly 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.
A quick glance at the timings on this recording will reveal that not one of the sixty-three compositions lasts as long as two minutes. Since many are even less than a minute in length, it seems that this disc will be a treasure trove for radio stations looking for tiny slices of music to fill out odds and ends of airtime between longer selections. In the same way, it is fun to think how the upscale broadcast news programmes could use this music as a musical button between stories and to try to imagine the content of the story this music would follow. When listening to these short musical experiences, one is reminded of the German poet Friedrich Schlegel’s aphorism about aphorisms: “An aphorism ought to be entirely isolated from the surrounding world like a little work of art and complete in itself like a hedgehog.”
The Eight Preludes, Op 9, were composed as separate pieces while the young composer was still living in Tiblisi and were gathered together for publication by the French publisher Heugel with the support of Tcherepnin’s mentor Isidor Phillipp. There were many similar pieces in his suitcase when he arrived in Paris. Tcherepnin called them bloshky—“little fleas”—in reference to the frequent leaps found in these miniatures. These leaps are amply demonstrated right away in the first prelude, which juxtaposes the slow pealing of big bells with the quicker celebration of smaller bells. It ends with a chord progression of which Rachmaninov would be very proud. The second prelude is a mournful tune spun out over an undulating progression in the left hand. The exotic melismas foretell a veritable aviary of warbles and trills. The listener can easily imagine a leisurely walk in the woods with the birds singing in the trees. In the third prelude exotic scales decorate a repeated five-note pattern with a sense of curious unrest. The fourth prelude is a nostalgic memory that grows into a cry of anguish over what has been lost. In the fifth prelude, a simple stepwise melody descends over an increasingly hypnotic accompaniment until it ends like the beginning, but an octave lower. The sixth prelude begins and ends like an odd reminiscence of the first Chopin prelude. This is an effectively evocative musical tidbit. The seventh prelude is a swirling will-of-the-wisp that also ends with its beginning. The final prelude in this ad hoc set is a hauntingly simple melody decorated with exotic flourishes. The melody gradually descends to a hollow baritone ending.
There are actually five Arabesques in Opus 11, but since one of them is written for violin and piano it is not included in this recording. These pieces also stem from Tiblisi days before Tcherepnin’s arrival in Paris. Throughout the set, the composer’s fascination with exotic scales is evident. The first is subtle and has a mostly calming effect despite an emotional outburst in the middle. The weaving melodic interludes live up to the arabesque nameplate. The second is a more overtly joyous affair with interruptions by clangorous bells. A carefree simple melody sings above the arabesques in the left hand. In the third arabesque, the musical squiggles are more confined to planing figurations under a repeated simple melody. The effect is similar to Debussy’s Poissons d’or. The fourth arabesque is in a similar style with the same swirling sounds.
Tcherepnin wrote twelve little pieces in 1969 at the request of the publisher Choudens who wanted to choose one for inclusion in a volume of music for children. The chosen piece was Ascension. All the others remained unpublished and were made available for this recording by the Tcherepnin Society. These Twelve Pieces are presented here on eleven tracks, with Nos 4 and 5 of the set recorded together on Track 16, because the end of No 4 is marked attacca—thus no place for separation of the two on different tracks. No 5 is also untitled, adding to the confusion.
No 1, Moderato, has a hollow opening with the hands far apart. The hands gradually get closer together, but the texture is spare throughout and the piece ends with a single pealing note. No 2, Lento, is also spare, taking a figure from the previous track and perhaps not developing it, but at least tossing it around. No 3, Animato, is a delightful march with some tricky rhythms and repeated notes reminding us of a drumline having an inordinate amount of fun.
As noted above, Track 16 actually includes two pieces. The first, No 4, marked Agitato, has more tricky rhythms and spiky leaps. The second, the untitled No 5, is a mellow but insistent trumpet call. One can imagine children playing gleefully and grumbling upon being called home by their parents. In No 6, Molto animato, the music struts and flows enigmatically in a playful manner. No 7, another Lento, is a remarkably interesting construction based on the hands moving in parallel intervals that are constantly surprising—sometimes major, sometimes minor, sometimes tritones, and sometimes seconds. No 8, marked En allant, features a meandering melody and accompaniment searching right and left, then both directions at the same time. The hands mirror each other at the end of this cleverly written piece. The untitled No 9 is a sad folk-like melody accompanied by a descending chromatic scale in the left hand.
No 10, the third Lento in the set, has a high melody conversing with a low melody—a bizarre “Beauty and the Beast” with a cacophony of singing birds in the middle. No 11, the sole piece chosen by Choudens for publication, lives up to its title “Ascension” by starting in the lowest depths of the keyboard and climbing to its highest glory in less than a minute. The final piece in the set, No 12, entitled Jeu de cubes, sounds as if it would be great fun to play, with its clear picture of a child setting up and knocking over a set of toy blocks.
The remaining 39 pieces on this disc (Tracks 24 to 62) have been collected together under the title Opivochki (“Little Leftovers” or, less elegantly translated, “Little Dregs”) and since they are among his last works were assigned Tcherepnin’s final opus number 109. Some were sketches for larger works, but each one addresses a particular issue in composition. The manuscripts for this recording were also provided by the Tcherepnin Society. It seems almost counterproductive to spend time reading or writing about each piece as the description takes longer than the listening experience. But for those who want to keep reading, here is a list of the pieces and track numbers and a brief comment or two (in incomplete sentences) about each “leftover.”
 No 1—shades of Messiaen’s bird music, although the bird gets pretty large near the end
 No 2—ecstatic bird music over beautiful close harmonies
 No 3—another bird-like beginning with a pointillist middle and a growling ending
 No 4—slightly spooky with distant bells and a question mark for an ending
 No 5—a confident melody harmonized to produce a feeling of uncertainty
 No 6—a simple melody subsequently harmonized in a very pleasing manner
 No 7—an attractive lilting tune accompanied by a gradually rising chromatic scale
 No 8—a strangely sad but peaceful and satisfying interlude
 No 9—a sprightly march
 No 10—an amazing amount of tension created by two single lines pitted against each other
 No 11—a calm antidote to the previous epigram, with Russian-sounding harmonies
 No 12—a gently optimistic tune with a flowing accompaniment skating throughout
 No 13—more serious, to be played with knotted brows
 No 14—rich atmospheric chords surrounding a slightly ominous repeated-note figure
 No 15—raindrops sliding down outside a window
 No 16—a Stravinsky-esque two part invention with a captivating cadence
 No 17—a steady mechanical perpetual motion with a whiff of jazz near the end
 No 18—hollow music for a hallowed space
 No 19—a cheerful nod to Stravinsky
 No 20—and yet another strutting Stravinsky homage
 No 21—spicy harmonies juxtaposed with a simple singable melody
 No 22—almost romantic in an atmospheric way with comparatively rich harmonies
 No 23—a deeply sad and thoughtful reverie
 No 24—a pensive piece that ends as it begins
 No 25—trumpets and ethereal scales evoking the image of a child playing with toy soldiers
 No 26—a thoughtfully quixotic and piquant little two-voice tidbit
 No 27—a relatively cheerful melody with a drooping accompaniment
 No 28—a brief march with a bold start that disappears in a puff of smoke
 No 29—a melody repeated with ever richer and more satisfying harmonies
 No 30—another bold march that grows more hesitant and thoughtful during its brief life
 No 31—a confident melody nagged by an insistent accompaniment until relief finally arrives
 No 32—a thorough exploration of the lower registers of the piano by the left hand alone
 No 33—a perfectly innocent cheerful tune turned into a question mark by the curious accompaniment
 No 34—a simple attractive melody with fascinating sliding harmonies
 No 35—music for troubled times
 No 36—heavy, ponderous music with Russian harmonies relieved by occasional brief birdcalls
 No 37—drooping music
 No 38—a peaceful romantic interlude
 No 39—a little duet that brings this set to an innocent and optimistic conclusion
Alexander Tcherepnin was surely a Master of the Miniature!
Cary Lewis and Mark Gresham
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TCHEREPNIN, A.: Piano Music, Vol. 5 (Koukl)