TCHEREPNIN: Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 22. Symphony No. 2, Op. 77. Suite
for Orchestra, Op. 87.
Alexander Tcherepnin, piano; Louisville Orchestra/Robert
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Tcherepnin redux? Alexander Tcherepnin, son of composer father Nicolai
and father of composer sons Ivan and Serge, seems to enjoy a bit of
a boom in his music. Bis has brought out the symphonies and most of
concerti, for example. I remember, however, when these works were the
only ones available. Tcherepnin, a musical all-rounder, not only composed,
toured as a virtuoso pianist, conducted, taught, and theorized. He
invented his own scale (essentially a scale that allowed the formation
with simultaneous major and minor thirds -- for him the basic consonance)
and expanded the notion of counterpoint to something he called interpoint
-- as far as I can tell, a variant of Webern's pointillism (I'm probably
wrong about this), contrapuntal lines arising from the interplay of
many voices, rather than a contrapuntal texture from integral musical
It strikes me that we can find a prototype of Tcherepnin's interpoint
in the final movement of Tchaikovsky's Pathétique Symphony,
where the opening descending line heard is played by no one part, but
a kind of aural illusion by several parts. In any case, we should focus
on the music Tcherepnin wrote, rather than on the means he used to
Tcherepnin felt music as a calling. He strove to make just about every
work at least beautifully-crafted. This didn't necessarily preclude fun.
I may be one of the few to have heard his delightful harmonica concerto,
which some virtuoso ought to resurrect. After all, it's not as if the harmonica
repertory was full to bursting. Nevertheless, I find his output a bit variable.
Some works do absolutely nothing for me. Others I like quite a bit.
The second piano concerto definitely falls into the latter category. An
early work, from the composer's twenties (and the Twenties; Tcherepnin
was born in 1899), it has some the cheeky charm of Prokofiev, without the
curse of imitation. It makes no claim on depth, but a magical charisma
it has got in spades. The structure is typically ingenious: a one-movement
concerto based on only two themes, and the major sections a march, with
the theme trying to decide whether it's in duple or triple meter (the two
versions fighting it out between themselves), an abbreviated slow movement,
a set of variations, and a recap of the opening. The composer puts himself
through a virtuoso classically contrapuntal workout, getting new ideas
from turning the main ones upside-down, inside-out, and backwards. But
the listener keeps an overall impression of fun and lyricism. You don't
have to know anything about scholastic canons in order to enjoy the piece.
It took Tcherepnin five years to write his second symphony. Several
things contributed to its delay. First, the commission came in 1946,
end of the Second World War. Tcherepnin, living in the now-liberated
wanted a work that gave "monumental" expression to the ambiguities
of the early postwar period. Second, his father Nicolai died in 1945,
thus tying the elegiac component of the war dead to major personal
tender artistic conscience seemed to block him from completing the
symphony, although he composed other works during this time, including
The completed work in a way disappoints, given Tcherepnin's hopes.
A handsome score, it nevertheless fails to carry all the emotional
tried to load on. Knowing the piece means to work as a kind of war
symphony on the one hand gives a listener special insight to, for example,
opening motive -- strings in a recognizable "snare drum" rhythm.
On the other hand, this doesn't make this work a war symphony any more
martial rhythms of Beethoven's first piano concerto make that a war
concerto. In other words, the abstraction of the musical motives --
brilliant, in themselves -- fail to deliver the emotional weight we
expect. It's one of those cases where knowing something of the circumstances
of composition gets in the way of enjoyment. We have only to listen
Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements or Martinu's Fourth to realize the gap
between Tcherepnin's intent and his achievement. Structurally, the
the composer's idiosyncratic approach to form. The symphony consists
of four movements, the last three played without a break. The slow
second movement, a restrained elegy for the composer's father, I find
interesting, both for its metric freedom and for the fact that it doesn't
resort to conventional gestures -- rather to personal, poetic ones
mourning. The mourning song suddenly, yet inevitably turns to a scherzo,
structured as one long crescendo and jolt of excitement. Just when
you think the screws can't turn any tighter, Tcherepnin skillfully
the brakes and turns all that energy into a solemn intro to a light
rondo, the final movement. Themes for this movement recall the early
particularly Petrushka's Shrovetide fair and the 4 Russian
attractive. In retrospect, Tcherepnin's ability to join the last three
movements into one long span impresses most.
The Suite has a high-minded and fairly silly program, which you needn't
bother about. The work suffers from the curse of the Well-Written Piece.
Nothing is outright terrible, and you know Tcherepnin is struggling hard
to sustain interest. But nothing seems to stay, either. I find the music
awfully thin and at the same time, emotionally inflated.
The performances, by Whitney and the Louisville Orchestra, are decent
-- in the case of the second piano concerto, even very good, with the
orchestra perhaps catching fire from the composer-soloist. The sound
is what lovers of modern music used to find acceptable. I still do,
but in this age of digital fooferaw I don't know about others.
S.G.S. (May 2005)