The colorful canvas of Tcherepnin’s piano writing

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer based in Bordeaux. He contributes music commentary to Facts & Arts, International New York Times, Boston Musical Intelligencer, Open Letters Monthly and Clavier Companion, among others. He is a former board member of the London International Piano Competition. 08.12.2013

Alexander Tcherepnin’s piano music, just completed on last of four CDs, reflects his lifelong span of variegated composition, including his earliest creations at 15 years of age while on the run with his family from Russian revolutionaries. 

The latest, Naxos CD (GP649), rounds out his piano oeuvre and presents it for posterity.

The new CD is an easy introduction to the breadth of Tcherepnin’s work, instructive for anyone who might have overlooked him in today’s crowded world of piano music. The pieces range from thumping, dissonant labors to the most delicate miniatures, one of which is a mere 31 seconds long.

The interpreter here is the Czech pianist Giorgio Koukl, who proves himself an able and sensitive master of these forgotten gems.  Koukl has also produced complete solo piano music of Bohuslav Martinu, a seven-CD box.

Tcherepnin was careful in all these 31 disparate pieces to achieve a degree of musical coherence that charms the ear. His opening selection, the Lento from his ten “Entretiens” (Conversations), ends with a simple rising three-step figure that concludes with a pianissimo e-natural, slowing fading away.

The 12 Préludes demonstrate the many facets of his range, exploring a wide diversity of musical ideas. Bartok and Scriabin can occasionally be heard under the surface. The liner notes quote one late critic as praising him for his “pungent, lyrical and musico-philisophic” approach. I think I agree with that, whatever it may mean. The Adagio is the most irresistible, though, with a line of floating harmonies that stay in the mind long after hearing. 

But it is his Five Concert Etudes, Opus 52, the “Chinese” series, which I rate highest. Most of the East-West traffic in serious music is one way – Asians playing Western composers – so it is comforting to see the reverse succeed. Debussy dabbled in this cross-cultural area but to my mind Tcherepnin does it better.

The Russian-born composer lived and worked in China from 1934 to 1937 and married young pianist Lee Hsien-Ming while there.  His China-related compositions are based on the pentatonic scales (five notes per octave). 

His brief “Homage to China”, a piano version of the pipa, a variant of the mandolin, is dedicated to his wife. Another in this series, “The Lute”, attempts to evoke the Chinese guqin, a traditional string instrument, and tells the story of a Chinese woodcutter and his friendship with a Mandarin.

Tcherepnin excelled in piano writing but was also active in opera, and ballet. He composed four symphonies, six piano concertos and a choral mass. 

The Tcherepnin family in St. Petersburg kept an artistic household that became a gathering place for some of Russia’s most creative 19th century artists and musicians, including the watercolorist Albert Benois and the impresario Serge Diagaliev.

A child prodigy, he had composed several hundred pieces, including 13 piano concertos, by his late teens. The family fled to Tbilisi, Georgia, to escape the violence of the Russian revolution, but was forced to flee further afield, to Paris, when the Soviets seized Georgia and annexed the country. 

He survived the war years in Paris by writing what he called “utility music”, most of which has been lost. “I had to compose lots of trash,” he wrote, “for dancers, for music halls and so on, under another name because I was Russian.”

He studied at the Paris Conservatoire, moving to the United States in 1948 and taking up a post at DePaul University, Chicago, for 16 years. Eventually he relocated to New York to devote himself to composing. 

Tcherepnin died in Paris in 1977.

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