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Alexander TCHEREPNIN (1899-1977)
Complete Piano Music - Volume 7
Track listings below review
Giorgio Koukl (piano)
rec. Conservatorio della Svizzera Italiana, Switzerland, 15 July 2010.
GRAND PIANO GP658 [57:30]

Alexander TCHEREPNIN (1899-1977)
Complete Piano Music - Volume 8
Giorgio Koukl (piano)
rec. Conservatorio della Svizzera Italiana, Switzerland, 12 February 2010.
GRAND PIANO GP659 [60:25]

With these two discs, we have reached the end of one of my most enjoyable musical journeys. I’m wondering how I’m going to cope now that it is over: see below for reviews of the earlier volume.

Voeux, written in 1927 at the same time as his Message (see Volume 2) bears the opus no. 39B and since Message is Op.39 there is the suggestion that there is some kind of connection. As the booklet writers of the entire series, Cary Lewis and Mark Gresham put it, “One wonders idly if there could be a hint in these pieces as to what the meaning of the Message might be.” That said, with their subtitles, these ‘wishes’ are complete in their captivating musical descriptions from the first "Pour mon Saint" (for my Saint) through those for his "family, for feeling, middleclass happiness, work, life" and closing with "for peace in the Middle East". The latter was withdrawn at first following the defeat of an “Islamic leader who was viewed as a threat to Western civilisation”, an example, if ever there was one, of the saying “what goes around comes around”! These pieces confirm Tcherepnin’s total mastery of the miniature. None of them runs much over two minutes; "For Peace in the Middle East" is a mere 45 seconds long.

Polka comes from the wartime years that the Tcherepnin family was forced to spend in Paris following the Occupation. The composer admitted that this was his least productive period during which he described what he did write, often for revues, music halls and dancers, as “trash”. When you listen to this polka which he at least relented about, orchestrating it later, you can only come to the conclusion that he was being too self-critical. Composers often take this excessively severe line, in many cases leading to the destruction of certain works. Thankfully this was not the fate of this charming, witty, knockabout piece that Lewis and Gresham understandably compare to Shostakovich’s polka from The Golden Age which was premièred in 1930.

The Étude de concert, here receiving its world première recording thanks to the Sacher Foundation's Tcherepnin Archive, is an exceptional piece. It dates from 1920 when the composer was still in Tbilisi before finally settling in Paris. It requires a certain deftness because of its requirement for the left hand to keep leapfrogging the right, as explained in the notes. Canzona from four years later incorporates mood-swings from the capricious to a serious and darkly declared feeling of menace. It ends with a cheeky little scherzo.

It was fascinating to read of the back-story surrounding the next piece Autour des montagnes Russes (Riding the roller-coaster). It concerns Tcherepnin hearing of a commission given eight French composers to celebrate the Paris International Exhibition of 1937. Tcherepnin suggested that a group of foreign composers then living in Paris should do the same. This was agreed to and both he and Martinů ended up composing pieces concerning the roller-coaster - known as Russian Mountains in France and American Mountains in Russia. This clever and witty piece was his contribution and his explanation of its meaning is a great aid to the listener, involving someone chickening out and instead watching it buck and ride from the sidelines.

One of Tcherepnin’s longest pieces for piano comes next in the shape of his Toccata No.2 from 1922. This calls for a huge amount of dexterity with the pianist’s hands having to leap about across the length of the keyboard. The following Pastoral is another miraculous miniature in which we are taken to China where Tcherepnin spent some time. It was where he met the woman who was to become his second wife. In a mere 1:44 we have oriental melodies and a splash of jazz in a delightful mixture of innocuous fun.

After the posthumous Canon, making its debut on disc, we have a beautiful work, the Dialogue from his Suite Géorgienne which incorporates a delicious Georgian melody. This he used at various times in different guises and for different instrumental combinations with this solo piano version working extremely well. From Georgia we are then transported back to Old St. Petersburg, another piece whose manuscript was generously provided by the Sacher Foundation for this project. In it the then 18 year old composer encapsulates in waltz form the grandeur that existed in certain circles in the then capital city that was about to be so momentously transformed. The next work, also provided by the Sacher Foundation and thus also making it onto disc for the first time, is the Ballade, the second longest work Tcherepnin wrote for piano. It is one that clearly involves a story we can only guess at but which is full of drama and hints at themes from Grieg’s Piano Concerto. It is a work packed full of contrasting styles from graceful, dancing rhythms to towering moments full of anxiety that seek fruitlessly for solution. The work ends on a tragic note.

What a contrast we find in the penultimate piece. Souvenir de Voyage is a real tongue-in-cheek, fun-packed and breathless whirlwind musical tour of as many countries as Tcherepnin could allude to in under three minutes. As the booklet writers point out this is a veritable exercise of ‘name that tune’ at which I failed miserably though I thought detected eleven possibilities among which Britain, France and Italy were represented. Tcherepnin wrote this to send to his wife explained pianist Giorgio Koukl by way of a musical postcard - how charming. The very last piece on the disc is Badinage. This sported the original title of Cloches et Clochettes. It is a measure of Tcherepnin’s personality that he could rise above the horrors of occupied Paris to pen this little delight in 1941.

This disc is another piece in the jigsaw that makes up the picture of a composer who wrote in so many varied styles ranging from the apparently frivolous nature of the last two pieces to the weighty drama of the Étude de concert and the Toccata No.2. Here stands a man that could let his hair down as well as write extremely serious works that never fail to amaze. Giorgio Koukl is, as ever, a brilliant exponent of this fascinating music.

Over the eight discs there are 309 different pieces from 62 works, 33 of them recorded for the first time. The series is a true voyage of musical discovery. Moving on to the eighth and final disc in the series Koukl has chosen to turn his attention to music written with children in mind. It will come as no surprise to learn that the master of the miniature could pen the most genuinely delightful and charming music — works that children could both enjoy listening to as well as playing. There are 83 pieces here and all but one, Sunny Day ‘Forgotten Bagatelle’ are world première recordings.

The first set is diplomatically entitled For Young and Old so as not to marginalise the older listener or pianist. Each of the twelve pieces has a separate title. It is unclear as to whether these pieces were meant to be attempted by children or just to be enjoyed by them. They sound pretty difficult to play though there are a number of videos posted on YouTube that show plenty of talented young pianists who could no doubt manage them. Certainly there is a great deal to enjoy here for adults and I’d be over the moon if I could play them as they are played here.

Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, born Marie-Françoise-Thérèse Martin, (2 January 1873 – 30 September 1897), or Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face, O.C.D. was the inspiration behind the next set which was written in 1925, the year she was canonized. These pieces seek to illustrate in music episodes in her life from birth through her first communion to the taking of orders and beyond. While it is true that they are reverential their charm comes through even where they are also introspective.

Episodes (Priskaski) were written at various times from the age of 13 to 21. Since they have been arranged in a random order you cannot tell which was written at which age. The earliest, Scherzando, belies the young age of its composer. All of these pieces Tcherepnin brought to Paris with him in his suitcase. Fortunately his teacher Isidor Phillip encouraged him to seek their publication. They are all charming as well as inventive and Tcherepnin’s preferred title for the collection Priskaski which translates as 'short stories' is a much more accurate description than Episodes which had been suggested by Phillip. As mentioned in relation to some of his wartime compositions on Volume 7 there were pieces that Tcherepnin suppressed considering that these were part of his juvenilia. We are lucky he did not destroy them. Papillon in particular is such a perfect musical representation of a butterfly and is typical of his thoroughly original way of thinking.

The next 26 pieces are collected in three suites that have an overall title of Piano Study on the Pentatonique Scale. Although particularly associated with music from the Orient including the folk melodies of China, Korea, Laos, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Japan, and Vietnam the pentatonic scale is also found throughout the world: from Celtic to West African music, from Bluegrass to Albanian folk and Jazz. Debussy among others found that its use in Indonesian gamelan inspirational and deployed it in several of his compositions to great effect. I’m aware that I keep emphasising Tcherepnin’s incredible facility for creating miniatures but it is simply astonishing that he can endow something that lasts a mere 11 seconds (Chanson des Marins) with such personality. Every one of these 26 pieces that in total last a little over 16 minutes is beguilingly attractive. Budding young pianists would love to play them I’m quite sure. Their childlike innocence would win anyone over. Anyone who has heard traditional Chinese instruments played will recognise imitations of them here. The first ten of these were dedicated to the ten young pianists who performed his Bagatelles, Op.5 (1918) at a concert in Peking (see Volume 1 GP608) the eleventh to their teacher and the last to his pipa teacher all of which sums up his enjoyment of his time spent in China.

The 17 piano pieces for beginners of 1957 again exude a charm that is quite magical and the titles match each piece perfectly. Tcherepnin wrote music that educated as well as enchanted children throughout his life from the Episodes (Priskaski) from 1912 to the Two pieces for Children of 1976. You can appreciate how much children must have meant to him as well as his desire to help them appreciate music as much as he did. It is a measure of the man as much as the musician. The last pieces on the disc are equally lovely and it is extremely poignant to read that Sunny Day ‘Forgotten Bagatelle’ (1915), the only piece that is not a world première recording, was one that he found and copied out on the very day he died. It makes a telling full stop to the whole 8 CD journey through the music of this singularly irresistible and compelling composer. His music is deservedly finding new devotees today but will doubtless draw new admirers for decades to come. Taking us through this musical journey Giorgio Koukl has demonstrated his prowess as a pianist from the most demanding pieces to the most delicately tiny fragment. He also brings with him a total commitment to the project, together with obvious love for the music and determination to propagate new audiences. I have been privileged to see this journey through from beginning to end and have learned so much including discovering Tcherepnin's four symphonies and six piano concertos. As I said at the start I feel somewhat bereft now it is over but I shall be revisiting this wondrous music often.

Grand Piano is to be congratulated in its endeavours to put Tcherepnin firmly on the musical map and for its continued determination to explore and release music from composers that would rarely, if ever, otherwise see the light of day on disc.

Steve Arloff

Track listings
Vol 7

Voeux (Wishes). Op.39B (1926) [9:58]
Polka (version for piano) (1944) [1:53]
Étude de concert (1920)* [4:10]
Canzona, Op.28 (1924) [3:25]
Autour des montagnes Russes (Riding the roller-coaster) (1937) [3:28]
Toccata No.2, Op.20 (1922) [8:07]
Pastoral (arranged by the composer from The Lost Flute, Op.89:Introduction) (1955)* [1:44]
Canon, Op.Posth. (version for piano) (1923-24)* [2:44]
Dialogue (arranged by the composer from Suite Géorgienne, Op.57:II.-) (1952)* [4:03]
Old St.Petersburg (Ca.1917)* [3:16]
Ballade (1917)* [8:57]
Souvenir de Voyage* [2:55]
Badinage (1941)* [2:56]

Vol 8
Pour petits et grands Op.65 (1940)* [13:17]
Histoire de la petite Thérèse de l’enfant Jésus Op.36B (1925)* [9:35]
Episodes (Priskaski) (1912-20)* [10:27]
Étude du piano sur la gamme pentatonique:*
Première suite, Op.51, No.1 (1934) [2:23]
Deuxième suite, Op.51, No.2 (1934) [4:06]
12 Bagatelles Chinoises, Op.51, No.3 (1935) [9:52]
17 piano pieces for beginners (1957) [8:55]
Two pieces for children:*
Celebration (1976) [00:24]
Indian Trail (1976) [00:26]
Sunny Day ‘Forgotten Bagatelle’ (1915) [1:05]
*World première recordings

Reviews of previous volumes
Volume 1
Volume 2
Volume 3
Volume 4
Volume 5
Volume 6