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CLASSICAL  July 2005

CLASSICAL July 2005

Subject:

Tcherepnin Orchestral Works

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Tue, 12 Jul 2005 19:03:23 -0500

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     Alexander Tcherepnin

*  Piano Concerto No. 2, op. 22
*  Symphony No. 2, op. 77
*  Suite for Orchestra, op. 87

Alexander Tcherepnin, piano; The Louisville Orchestra/Robert Whitney.
First Edition Music FECD-0024 Total time: 59:19

Summary for the Busy Executive: 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 the piano concerti,
for example.  I remember, however, when these works were the only ones
available.  Tcherepnin, a musical all-rounder, not only composed, but
toured as a virtuoso pianist, conducted, taught, and theorized.  He
invented his own scale (essentially a scale that allowed the formation
of chords 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 lines.  It strikes me that we can find a prototype of Tcherepnin's
interpoint in the final movement of Tchaikovsky's Pathetique Symphony,
where the opening descending line heard is played by no one part, but
created as 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 write it.

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,
at the end of the Second World War.  Tcherepnin, living in the now-liberated
Paris, 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 loss.
Tcherepnin's tender artistic conscience seemed to block him from completing
the symphony, although he composed other works during this time, including
ballets and concerti.

The completed work in a way disappoints, given Tcherepnin's hopes.  A
handsome score, it nevertheless fails to carry all the emotional freight
the composer 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, the opening motive -- strings in a recognizable "snare
drum" rhythm.  On the other hand, this doesn't make this work a war
symphony any more than the martial rhythms of Beethoven's first piano
concerto make that a war concerto.  In other words, the abstraction of
the musical motives -- clever, even 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 to Stravinsky's Symphony in Three
Movements or Martinu's Fourth to realize the gap between Tcherepnin's
intent and his achievement.  Structurally, the symphony shows 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 the most
interesting, both for its metric freedom and for the fact that it doesn't
resort to conventional gestures -- rather to personal, poetic ones --
of 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
applies 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 Stravinsky, particularly Petrushka's Shrovetide fair and the 4
Russian Songs.  Very 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.

Steve Schwartz

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