Nikolai TCHEREPNIN (1873-1945)
Three Pieces, op.24 [14:38]
14 Sketches on Pictures from the Russian Alphabet, op.38 (1908) [32:49]
6 Musical Illustrations to Pushkin's 'The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish', op.41 [18:08]
David Witten (piano)
rec. Performing Arts Center, Purchase College, State University of New York, 28-30 June 2009. DDD
Like Tchaikovsky, Nikolai Tcherepnin is a Russian composer lumbered with a superfluous initial T. Unlike his great compatriot, Tcherepnin's music suffers from a distinct, and entirely unjustifiable lack of exposure. It is quite astonishing that this is, according to the Tcherepnin Society, only the fourth ever CD dedicated entirely to his music. On the evidence at least of this release, Tcherepnin's piano music - evocative, melodic, harmonically imaginative and immensely varied - merits a place in every pianist's repertoire and on every music-lover's shelf.
The Three Pieces op.24 set the tone marvellously for the rest of the disc, from the opening soulful neo-Chopinesque Rêverie to the breezy wistfulness of the Idylle, via the tumultuous C minor Etude in which Tcherepnin pays virtuosic tribute to Chopin's op.10 no.12 in aptly revolutionary-sounding terms. The Three Pieces were probably composed in the 1890s, making them a relatively early work: this is still Tcherepnin the Romantic.
By contrast, in 6 Musical Illustrations to Pushkin's 'The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish', abbreviated to The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish on the disc, the distinctive harmonic language that was to become Tcherepnin's trademark is immediately apparent and very striking. For a composer of such evident originality - not to mention his musicological significance as a teacher, conductor and father of Alexander - it is hard to credit that The Tale, like both other works in David Witten's memorable recital, is a premiere recording.
The New Grove dictionary lists only an orchestral version of The Tale, published in 1921, but according to Witten's notes, the piano score predates it by at least six years. Tcherepnin did in fact expect the pianist normally to be accompanied by a narrator, with the piano giving a musical description, both literally and psychologically, of Pushkin's text after each of the six sections into which Tcherepnin has divided the work. There is no narrator in this recording, but DIY is certainly possible - the full text in English is given in the booklet.
If the non-existence of a previous recording of The Fisherman and the Fish is puzzling, the neglect of the 14 Sketches on Pictures from the Russian Alphabet is inexplicable. Inspired by a children's book, Tcherepnin has created a suite of beautifully sculpted miniatures, depicting a murderous Moor, a doll's mealtime, swans on a lake, a scene from Hänsel and Gretel, a stuffed bear and a host of other images of great variety, captured with outstanding musical imagination. By way of splendid bonus, Toccata have reproduced all 14 letter-pictures in colour in their original form in the booklet.
All three of Tcherepnin's works are sensitively played, with technical expertise, by experienced American pianist David Witten, who is also founder member of the chamber trio Solo Espri - exotically made up of piano, clarinet and mezzo-soprano - as well as of Dúo Clásico, where Witten performs with flautist Sue-Ellen Hershman-Tcherepnin ... a link there with this latest release, perhaps!
Sound quality is generally very good. Despite the retro looking cover, the CD booklet is excellent, with detailed, interesting notes, even footnotes, on Tcherepnin and his works written by Witten.
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Tcherepnin's piano music - evocative, melodic, harmonically imaginative and immensely varied.