In the fullness of not very much time it seems that every completed
Bis series finds its way into a bargain box. The challenge is:
can you wait and endure the uncertainty. If you have been patient
then in this case four discs can be yours for the price of 2.
What’s more you get them in a handsome and space-saving box
with great documentation from Benjamin Folkman, Horst A Scholz
and Julius Wender (whose major biography of the composer has
been published by Indiana University Press). Each work is sensibly
separate by a good long helping of inter-track silence.
The Tcherepnin dynasty comprises Nikolai (1873-1945) the father, Alexander (1899-1977), the son and Ivan (1943-1998) and Sergei (b.1941), the sons of Alexander. Alexander grew up in an affluent and musical family. Their home welcomed the leading artistic lights of Russian society. The 1917 Revolution changed everything for the Tcherepnins and they emigrated to Tbilisi, Georgia. In 1921 they moved to Paris where Alexander’s circle included Martinu and Tansman. He lived in China and Japan between 1934 and 1937 and married the concert pianist Lee Hsien Ming. They spent the war years in Paris. In 1948 he emigrated to the USA, living in Chicago and New York. Gregor Tassie’s account of the Tcherepnins can be read on this site.
My first encounter with the music of Alexander Tcherepnin came courtesy of Liszt and Alan Bush hero David Wilde in the Sixth Piano Concerto – a BBC Radio 3 broadcast with the BBC Northern in February 1979. I had known about Tcherepnin in very vague terms because of the golden era LP of piano concertos 2 and 5 recorded with the composer as soloist and Rafael Kubelik conducting the Bavarian State Radio Orchestra. That was in 1968 on Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft DGG 139 379 - later on DG 453 157-2. His Ten Bagatelles for piano and orchestra, Op. 5 were recorded in 1960 by Margrit Weber with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra and Ferenc Fricsay (DG 463 085-2). EMI Classics recorded a couple of LPs-worth of his chamber and solo piano music in the late 1960s and early 1970s in Paris with the composer at the piano and in collaboration with the Torteliers and the Groupe Instrumentale de Paris. These can now be heard on EMI Classics 50999 90725623 (reviewed here recently).
Turning to the first disc. The First Symphony is busy and Stravinskian. Its initial movement rushes along trailing Prokofiev-like flames at the peak of its trajectory. The second movement is unusual being for percussion only. It was greeted with horror by the first audience and elicited mass protest from those in the hall. Paris seems to have had a penchant for these things. Who can imagine a protest of this sort today? The third movement is romantic yet somehow purged of all fervour. The fugal rush of the finale is similarly bereft of surface glamour – just a hint of Markevitch in this.
The Fifth Piano Concerto (1963) opens with eerie and trembling piano murmur. Dissonant sighs and shreds of motifs precede a subdued and gently wispy central Andantino touched with the quality of Slav chant. The finale is a clever and fascinating sequence of variations with wonderful changes in dynamic. This develops into a wild celebration with touches of Tchaikovsky 4 colliding with Petrushka.
The composer described the Second Symphony as ‘dynamic and emotional’. Again we hear hesitant tendrils of ideas. From a moderate tempo a euphoric whirl of surging activity develops. The mood mixes Iberian effects with a touch of Borodin. The second movement has an aquamarine lustre, a bell-like ostinato and a motif-regularity that recalls the ‘radio signal’ in Barber’s Second Symphony. Next comes another helping of uproarious Spanishry. The rhythms are excitable but always sharply etched. The Finale has a rhythmic jerk alongside the gurgle of birdsong and a dazzle of celebration that is reminiscent of Petrushka and Bliss’s ballets.
CD2: The Third Symphony is a potentially very popular work. The cleanly romantic lines of the first movement suggest Alwyn and even Moeran. There is an oriental influence no doubt attributable to Tcherepnin’s years in China. Add to this a touch of Igor Markevich's steely power which returns in glossy splendour in the finale. While the second movement's Stravinskian marching is clever the great Adagio is impressive. Its features include a Rimskian Russo-oriental melody (sung on oboe) and a melody (shades of Londonderry Air) counterpointed by the 'chipping' of the xylophone. Tcherepnin brings these strands to a Tchaikovskian simmer in which the brass impressively jut, thrust, parry and riposte.
Its less obviously accessible successor – the Fourth Symphony - is in three movements. It is scorchingly Rimskian with a dash of Shostakovich's triumphalism and Malcolm Arnold's melodrama. The middle movement is memorable for its acerbic piccolo, an 'exploded' waltz and a high quotient of dissonance. The music might be likened to Bruckner 8 on 'speed'. The Andante shatters the Brucknerian antics of the middle movement with helpings of Honegger (think of Pacific 231) and ends sphinx-like: quietly with small trudging motivic cells petering out into silence.
The Piano Concerto No. 6 is a comparatively late work yet not unduly challenging. The music partakes of Prokofiev's brightness and Shostakovich's asperity. There is an insistent Allegro with an excitable angular rush of stony notes and a slightly edgy Andantino. It was premiered by Margrit Weber with the Concertgebouw and Rafael Kubelik at the Luzern Festival in 1972.
CD3: The single movement - Allegro tumultuoso - of the Piano Concerto No. 1 launches with a drumming and thrumming start. It has some of the uprush of the Prokofiev First Concerto. The music rises to a surging romantic plateau. The only blemish on this rearing, heroic and confident work is the presence of some rather mundane fugal pages. It was written in the Caucasus in 1918-19.
The Third Concerto is in two movements. It was written en route between Boston and Cairo. Angular, sporting a klaxon skirl and with some statuesque dissonance the finale it rises to an edgy Boléro eruption. The Allegro makes play with a fugue.
Festmusik is the concert-hall title for a suite of incidental music to the drama The Wedding of Sobeide. The Ouverture is a whirling storm similar to the wildest Mossolov and Markevitch. There’s also a phantasmal screechy Dance of the Evil Dwarves and an Armenian-flavoured finale.
The Symphonic March shares the optimistic bustle and even euphoria of the First Piano Concerto. The sanguine mood contrasts with pages of wailing fear and sorrow. It supports echoes of Russian nationalism but is more objective - as is typical of Tcherepnin. There are some lush orchestral touches along the way.
CD 4. The Symphonic Prayer is a later work of dark mien and unglamorous matter. Its leaping themes and angularity mix with an acid dissonance and in the Antiphon there are salvoes of thunderous drums.
The Second Piano Concerto is in a single movement - like its predecessor. It is dedicated to Jean-Marie Darré whose French Pathé cycle of Saint-Saens piano concertos (now deleted by EMI) is well worth tracking down. Its clean lines are not weighed down with lush treatment. The neo-classical stance accommodates music that is often insistent or even incessant. It ends weakly.
Magna Mater (1923-27) is strangely unemotional. In that sense it is a bit like Markevitch yet neither as supercharged nor as buoyant. A grave theme is centre-stage and the piece ends in a blast of brass and percussion in which the tam-tam is prominent.
The Fourth Piano Concerto Fantaisie (1947) is one of his Chinese-inflected works written shortly before he emigrated to the USA. A sense of fantasy hangs over its pages. The first movement Eastern Chamber Dream is delicately evocative of some sultry Oriental vision. This is disturbed by flurries of polished and glinting notes. The music is very engaging - easy of access and more humane than some of the works featured in this box. The remaining movements are Yan Kuei Fei's Love Sacrifice and typically oriental, innocently optimistic exuberance of Road to Yunnan. Each movement tells a folk tale.
This box represents a fascinating and sometimes very engaging insight into the very unfamiliar world of Alexander Tcherepnin.
CD 1 [75:17]
Symphony No.1 in E major, Op.42 (1927) [24:37]
Piano Concerto No.5, Op.96 (1963) [24:00]
Symphony No.2 in E flat major, Op.77 (1946-51) [25:15]
CD 2 [79:45]
Symphony No.3 in F sharp major, Op.83 (1951) [26:14]
Piano Concerto No.6, Op.99 (1965) [25:41]
Symphony No.4 in E major, Op.91 (1957) [26:39]
CD 3 [55:19]
Piano Concerto No.1, Op.12 (1919-20) [18:44]
Piano Concerto No.3, Op.48 (1931-32) [17:53]
Festmusik, Op.45a (1920) [11:36]
Symphonic March, Op.80 (1951) [5:36]
CD 4 [63:48]
Symphonic Prayer, Op.93 (1959) [6:51]
Piano Concerto No.2, Op.26 (1922-23 rev 1950) [17:38]
Magna Mater, Op.41 (1926-27) [9:01]
Piano Concerto No.4 (Fantaisie), Op.78 (1947) [28:51]
Reviews of Alexander Tcherepnin on MusicWeb International
FRC9110 - Piano Concertos 2, 4 & 6
BIS CD1018 - Symphonies 3 & 4, Piano Concerto 6
CD1247 - Piano Concertos 2 & 4