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CD Review

Alexander Tcherepnin

  • Piano Concerto #2, Op. 22
  • Symphony #2, Op. 77
  • Suite for Orchestra, Op. 87
Alexander Tcherepnin, piano
The Louisville Orchestra/Robert Whitney
First Edition Music FECD-0024 59:19
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Tcherepnin redux?

Alexander Tcherepnin, son of composer father Nicolai and father of composer sons Ivan and Serge, seems to enjoy a bit of a boom in his music. Bis has brought out the symphonies and most of the piano concerti, for example. I remember, however, when these works were the only ones available. Tcherepnin, a musical all-rounder, not only composed, but toured as a virtuoso pianist, conducted, taught, and theorized. He invented his own scale (essentially a scale that allowed the formation of chords with simultaneous major and minor thirds – for him the basic consonance) and expanded the notion of counterpoint to something he called interpoint – as far as I can tell, a variant of Webern's pointillism (I'm probably wrong about this), contrapuntal lines arising from the interplay of many voices, rather than a contrapuntal texture from integral musical lines. It strikes me that we can find a prototype of Tcherepnin's interpoint in the final movement of Tchaikovsky's Pathétique Symphony, where the opening descending line heard is played by no one part, but created as a kind of aural illusion by several parts. In any case, we should focus on the music Tcherepnin wrote, rather than on the means he used to write it.

Tcherepnin felt music as a calling. He strove to make just about every work at least beautifully-crafted. This didn't necessarily preclude fun. I may be one of the few to have heard his delightful harmonica concerto, which some virtuoso ought to resurrect. After all, it's not as if the harmonica repertory was full to bursting. Nevertheless, I find his output a bit variable. Some works do absolutely nothing for me. Others I like quite a bit.

The second piano concerto definitely falls into the latter category. An early work, from the composer's twenties (and the Twenties; Tcherepnin was born in 1899), it has some the cheeky charm of Prokofieff, without the curse of imitation. It makes no claim on depth, but a magical charisma it has got in spades. The structure is typically ingenious: a one-movement concerto based on only two themes, and the major sections a march, with the theme trying to decide whether it's in duple or triple meter (the two versions fighting it out between themselves), an abbreviated slow movement, a set of variations, and a recap of the opening. The composer puts himself through a virtuoso classically contrapuntal workout, getting new ideas from turning the main ones upside-down, inside-out, and backwards. But the listener keeps an overall impression of fun and lyricism. You don't have to know anything about scholastic canons in order to enjoy the piece.

It took Tcherepnin five years to write his second symphony. Several things contributed to its delay. First, the commission came in 1946, at the end of the Second World War. Tcherepnin, living in the now-liberated Paris, wanted a work that gave "monumental" expression to the ambiguities of the early postwar period. Second, his father Nicolai died in 1945, thus tying the elegiac component of the war dead to major personal loss. Tcherepnin's tender artistic conscience seemed to block him from completing the symphony, although he composed other works during this time, including ballets and concerti.

The completed work in a way disappoints, given Tcherepnin's hopes. A handsome score, it nevertheless fails to carry all the emotional freight the composer tried to load on. Knowing the piece means to work as a kind of war symphony on the one hand gives a listener special insight to, for example, the opening motive – strings in a recognizable "snare drum" rhythm. On the other hand, this doesn't make this work a war symphony any more than the martial rhythms of Beethoven's first piano concerto make that a war concerto. In other words, the abstraction of the musical motives – clever, even brilliant, in themselves – fail to deliver the emotional weight we expect. It's one of those cases where knowing something of the circumstances of composition gets in the way of enjoyment. We have only to listen to Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements or Martinů's Fourth to realize the gap between Tcherepnin's intent and his achievement. Structurally, the symphony shows the composer's idiosyncratic approach to form. The symphony consists of four movements, the last three played without a break. The slow second movement, a restrained elegy for the composer's father, I find the most interesting, both for its metric freedom and for the fact that it doesn't resort to conventional gestures – rather to personal, poetic ones – of mourning. The mourning song suddenly, yet inevitably turns to a scherzo, structured as one long crescendo and jolt of excitement. Just when you think the screws can't turn any tighter, Tcherepnin skillfully applies the brakes and turns all that energy into a solemn intro to a light rondo, the final movement. Themes for this movement recall the early Stravinsky, particularly Pétrouchka's Shrovetide fair and the 4 Russian Songs. Very attractive. In retrospect, Tcherepnin's ability to join the last three movements into one long span impresses most.

The Suite has a high-minded and fairly silly program, which you needn't bother about. The work suffers from the curse of the Well-Written Piece. Nothing is outright terrible, and you know Tcherepnin is struggling hard to sustain interest. But nothing seems to stay, either. I find the music awfully thin and at the same time, emotionally inflated.

The performances, by Whitney and the Louisville Orchestra, are decent – in the case of the second piano concerto, even very good, with the orchestra perhaps catching fire from the composer-soloist. The sound is what lovers of modern music used to find acceptable. I still do, but in this age of digital fooferaw I don't know about others.

Copyright © 2008, Steve Schwartz