RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Alexander TCHEREPNIN (1899-1977)
Complete Piano Music - Vol. 1
10 Bagatelles, op.5 (1918) [11:35]
Sonata No.1, op.22 (1918) [14:37]
Inventions, op.13 (1921) [5:43]*
Sonata No.2, op.94 (1961) [11:11]
10 Études, op.18 (1920) [19:32]*
Giorgio Koukl (piano)
*World Premiére Recordings
rec. Conservatorio della Svizzera Italiana, Lugano, Switzerland, 13 March 2011.
GRAND PIANO GP608 [62:38]
This is one of those discs that makes me want to shout with delight. Not only
is it the piano music of a neglected but brilliant composer but the sub-title
Complete Piano Music 1 means there will be more. In fact there will be
as many as eight volumes altogether. Hooray!
By his late teens, the accompanying booklet explains, Tcherepnin had already
composed several hundred pieces. His father, Nikolay was a conductor,
pianist and composer and, indeed the genes were passed on to Alexander’s
son Ivan who was also a composer. Being born in what, as Confucius would, no
doubt, have described as “interesting times”, the family had a difficult
life from 1917 when they left for Tbilisi, Georgia, to escape the upheavals
of the Russian Revolution, cholera and famine. Then they had to flee Georgia,
following its annexation by the Soviet Union in 1921, for Paris where Alexander
remained throughout the second world war before finally settling in the USA
His corpus of work embraces all manner of genres including opera, ballet, orchestral,
chamber, solo works, choral, band, music for films and the theatre and even
compositions for accordion and harmonica, among others. Though I’ve yet
to hear much of it I’ve always been particularly struck by his piano music
which I’ve found original and exciting ever since I first heard it on
a old vinyl disc. He’s another of those pianist composers from the early
twentieth century who became masters of the piano miniature.
The disc opens with his 10 Bagatelles, op.5 from 1918, distilled from
a much larger number of pieces begun when he was a mere 13 year old, and one
of his best known compositions. It comes as no surprise to learn that fact as
they are highly inventive and hugely satisfying works possessing a crystalline
brilliance accompanied by a propulsive momentum that drives the music forward
in a way that becomes almost addictive. They are pieces that stay in the memory
for, though I never heard that old disc often and not for many years, I recognised
the first two bagatelles as plainly as if I’d only listened to them last
week. Years after he had written them Tcherepnin was embarrassed by their success
regarding them as juvenile, though he relented later accepting their spontaneity.
Artists can sometimes be too self-critical, finding it difficult to accept flashes
of genius at an early age. These are certainly examples of that and while you
listen just remind yourself that these were composed almost one hundred years
ago - unbelievable!
Self criticism takes various forms and often includes destruction of works considered
unworthy of publication - thank God that didn’t happen with the bagatelles!
- and with Tcherepnin that was the fate of the first twelve of his 13 piano
sonatas, written in his early teens. The fourteenth, later renumbered as his
piano sonata no.1, is the sole survivor and listening to it you can only imagine
what has been lost, with regret. It’s a wonderful piece that is rhythmically
inventive and exciting and which reveals a creative talent that is simply mind-boggling
for someone so young. The booklet’s authors find some similarities with
Prokofiev’s earlier Toccata and describe it as “This distinctly
Russian-sounding piece ...” I agree with this but also see parallels in
Tcherepnin’s compositions with Medtner and aspects of Scriabin, Weinberg
and even Shostakovich. With piano compositions of that era from that part of
the world there seems to have been an inherent and instinctive prism through
which these composers naturally viewed things musical.
The 9 Inventions, op.13 (1921) that appear on this disc as a world première
recording are further proof of Tcherepnin’s compositional abilities. They
are, like the bagatelles, short, brilliantly scored little gems. The booklet’s
authors write that “... it is hard for the listener to escape the self-consciousness
of the new compositional technique”. I obviously missed out on that and
it makes me realise that sometimes it’s better not to be an expert so
that I can enjoy things more easily.
Tcherepnin’s Sonata no.2, op.94 (1961) has an autobiographical
aspect. It gives expression to a frightening episode in which Tcherepnin experienced
a strange ringing in his ears. This persisted over two years but eventually
disappeared of its own accord. I was not able to discern this in the music but
enjoyed it for its own sake as yet more marvellous writing for the piano. Again
it serves to emphasise his youthful abilities as this mature work did not leave
the early works ‘in the cold’ by any means.
The final work on the disc is 10 Études, op.18 (1920) and another
world première recording. As I listened to the opening of the first I
thought of Chopin. I was interested to read that the booklet noted similarities
with Chopin too but also with Prokofiev while others brought Rachmaninov to
mind and again Chopin and Prokofiev. Which composer doesn’t draw on influences
from others however. Those who make every conscious effort to plough a unique
furrow often produce sterile works. These etudes are absolutely fabulous little
masterpieces (no.8 lasts a mere 35 seconds!) and they round off the disc in
a truly emphatic way. When you realise that these works, while they bear the
date of publication of 1920, were in fact written when Tcherepnin was a young
teenager you just have to marvel. Music seems to be an art-form that very young
people seem able to master at an earlier age than just about any other. It would
be staggering to come upon a novel or a painting, sculpture or a play created
by anyone as young. On the rare occasions when it does happen we find it just
that. In music it happens much more often. I thought of this only yesterday
when I heard the string sextet written by the 11 year old Max Bruch.
This disc is a simply brilliant introduction to anyone who hasn’t come
across Tcherepnin before and who loves 20th century piano music.
The works are played superbly by Giorgio Koukl who has already recorded all
of Martinů’s piano works to great acclaim. A wonderful disc altogether!
This is one of those discs that makes me want to shout with delight... A wonderful