Alexander TCHEREPNIN (1899-1977)
Complete Piano Concertos
No.1 op.12 (1919-20) [18:46], No.2 op.26 (1923) [17:36], No.3 op.48 (1931-32) [18:03], No.4 (Fantaisie) op.78 (1947) [28:55], No.5 op.96 (1963) [24:00], No.6 op.99 (1965) [25:50]
Noriko Ogawa (piano)
Singapore Symphony Orchestra/Lan Shui
rec. January 1999, Victoria Concert Hall, Singapore
BRILLIANT 9232 [54:27 + 79:24]

Tcherepnins have been drifting in and out of the musical scene for at least three generations, often more as walk-ons in more famous composersí biographies than for themselves. None has really impinged so far on the general musical consciousness that the average concert-goer could tell you which was which. The one here is the one youíre most likely to have encountered. A prominent figure among the modernists working in Paris in the 1920s, his First Symphony caused a furore on account of its percussion-only scherzo. He was sufficiently well-known back then for the 9-note scale he often employed to be named the ďTcherepnin-scaleĒ. Later he was attracted to Oriental music, particularly that of China. This influence is to be heard in the fourth concerto. In late years he dabbled with pre-recorded tapes. A fine pianist, a disc of him playing concertos 2 and 5 with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Rafael Kubelik was issued by DG in late 1968. Despite a welcoming review from Edward Greenfield in Gramophone it evidently didnít sell particularly well, since the remaining four concertos didnít follow. However, Kubelik must have been impressed, as he conducted the belated premiŤre of the sixth in 1972, played by Margrit Weber.

The first is in a single movement, though falling into distinct sections. It opens with a thudding ostinato recalling Ė probably coincidentally Ė Sibeliusís En Saga, adulterated with braying orchestration that heralds Khachaturianís Sabre Dance. Indeed, in its insistence it even looks ahead to Philip Glass, anticipating as it does the minimalist tendency to labour an idea, even a good one, far longer than necessary. Still, itís a striking beginning. When the piano enters, the sound world seems less individual, almost nondescript in its modernized romanticism. No blame for this can be attached to Noriko Ogawa, who is throughout brilliant, colourful, rhythmical and poetic when the opportunity arises. We spend the rest of the concerto waiting for that beginning to come back again.

The second is also in a single movement. It enlarges the view without expanding the method. The third, in two movements, is more consistent in that there is no longer a disparity between the orchestral and the piano writing. On the other hand, it is becoming clear that musical development, for Tcherepnin, simply means sticking in a rut for a while, then going on to another rut and sticking in that. In spite of the orchestral colour range, the effect of this concerto is drab.

The fourth is the Chinese-inspired one. Its three movements are entitled Eastern Chamber Dream, Yan Kuei Feiís Love Sacrifice and Road to Yunnan. How Chinese it really is Iím not qualified to say. Itís the sort of sound and tone Hollywood composers use when illustrating an epic Chinese subject, but in view of the date, perhaps Tcherepnin was their inspiration. The opening has genuine majesty and breadth. As is Tcherepninís wont he doesnít do much except just go on until itís time to do something else, but at least itís a rut with a view. A magnificent view at the end, too, when the idea comes back with a rolling, over-the-top splendour. What happens in-between is variable, and thereís a lot of it. The piano has a surprisingly limited role here, rippling and cascading around but often more a part of the orchestra.

The next movement shows that virtually any sequence of notes, if allotted to the cor anglais and played as soulfully as possible on that instrument, will take on the semblance of a beautiful melody. This is actually a rather attractive movement, again with the piano offering a twittering commentary rather than a leading role. I kept thinking that at last Ogawa would get to play the tune, which she would certainly have done very beautifully, but she never does. She leads the way along the Road to Yunnan, though, in a very sprightly, good-humoured fashion. Perhaps because itís about a road, this is the one movement in all the concertos where Tcherepninís music seems to offer linear progress, rather than rut-by-rut.

The Chinese influence disappears in the last two concertos, but Iím not quite sure what this leaves. Nothing very much to my ears. In spite of an unfailingly inventive range of orchestral sound I find it difficult to hear much music in them. A few of the ruts start promisingly but that makes it all the more frustrating when they fail to deliver. Both pianist and conductor try hard to persuade us thereís real melody in the hushed exchanges of the slow movements but I fear theyíre flogging a dead horse.

Contrary to what some may believe, it gives me no pleasure to virtually trash a substantial corpus of work. Having dedicated much of my life to taking up the cudgels on behalf of little-known composers, I know how irritating it can be when a critic comes along who maybe hasnít heard a note of that composer before, and loftily dismisses him. But there it is. All I can say is that, probably the unusual vistas of the fourth concerto will tempt me back sooner or later and, having got the discs out, Iíll probably hear 1 and 2 again. Unless these sound a whole lot better than before I think Iíll pass on the other three.

I can only repeat that I am sure it is no fault of the performers, though in truth Iíve never heard the two set down by the composer. A cycle was also recorded by Murray McLachlan, originally for Olympia (Olympia OCD439 (2, 3, 6), November 1994; OCD 440 (1, 4, 5), December 1995), later partially reissued by Forum. The conductor Lan Shui does an excellent job and my already high admiration for Ogawa Ė her complete Debussy is probably the best available overall Ė is only reinforced. To have set down the lot in one month is remarkable Ė it would have been so much easier to record them separately on a learn-one-forget-one basis over a year or two. What a thankless task, though. Even if she really loves them, I wonder how often sheís been engaged to play one in concert, before or since. Or is Tcherepnin popular in Japan?

The recording, originally by BIS, is outstanding. So there, if youíre interested, the jobís been done as well as it possibly could. If you want to hear Ogawa, get her Debussy first (Bis Vols, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5).

Christopher Howell

The case for Tcherepnin couldnít be better presented, but Iím not convinced.

see also review of the original BIS release by Rob Barnett

Footnote
In my review of the complete Tcherepnin Piano Concertos played by Noriko Ogawa and reissued on Brilliant, I wrote, on the basis of Brilliant's documentation, which states that all six were recorded in December 1999: "To have set down the lot in one month is remarkable – it would have been so much easier to record them separately on a learn-one-forget-one basis over a year or two".
However, from the header to Rob Barnett's review of the original BIS issue, I now learn they were set down as follows:
Concertos 5 & 6: December 1999
Concertos 2 & 4: January, February, August 2001
Concertos 1 & 3: January, November 2002
I don't doubt that this is the correct information and I now have to withdraw my amazement at Ogawa's having set them all down in a single month. This doesn't affect my admiration for her playing, of course.
I must say this was pretty careless of Brilliant, and a clear case where no information at all would have been preferable to misleading information
Chris Howell