N. TCHEREPNIN: 3 Pieces, op. 34. 14 Sketches on Pictures from the Russian Alphabet, op. 38. The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish, op. 41.
David Witten (piano).
Toccata Classics TOCC 0117 TT: 65:45.

Between Romanticism and Modernism. Leave it to Toccata Classics to come up with a program of interesting music you probably haven't heard before. A student of Rimsky-Korsakov, Nikolai Tcherepnin founded a composer dynasty, with at least his great-grandson taking up the family business. Of those Captivating Composing Tcherepnins, my favorite is Nikolai's son, Alexander, whose music used to show up a lot during the Fifties. On the other hand, I hadn't heard a lot of Papa's music. Someone has pointed out that only four recordings entirely devoted to his work have previously appeared. Before this, I heard some brass music on quintet-recital discs.

Even so, this disc is hardly enough to judge the composer by. During his lifetime, his reputation came from his orchestral music, mainly ballets, and people thought well of him as a conductor. His most famous pupil is Prokofieff, who regarded his teacher highly. Indeed, he credited Tcherepnin with igniting his interest in Haydn and thus with the stimulus for the Classical Symphony. Tcherepnin's music lies in an odd place. The works here, all pretty early, show little trace of Rimsky, more of Borodin and Tchaikovsky. At the same time, one also catches in the Tale of the Fisherman hints of French Impressionism. Tcherepnin was noted as a progressive pedagogue, more sympathetic than his conservative conservatory colleagues to new directions.

This disc concentrates on Tcherepnin's piano output. Even if you didn't know his reputation as a fine pianist, you would probably guess it from the piano writing in the 3 Pieces. A lot of it comes from Chopin and Liszt, the latter very influential in 19th-century Russian music. The music doesn't show much individuality, in that you can cite many composers who might have written it, but it is indeed finely worked. "Rêverie" uses the late, near-Impressionist harmonies of Liszt. "Étude" comes pretty obviously from Chopin's "Revolutionary Étude," the difference lying mainly in the big theme put in the lower register and the fireworks in the upper. "Idylle" shows the most harmonic daring and sounds to me closest to Rimsky in its evocation of folk melody. Unfortunately, it runs twice as long as it can sustain. Still, the set as a whole shows great refinement.

One can say the same for Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish, also known in various folk collections as "The Fisherman and His Wife." A poor fisherman catches a magic fish who begs to let him go. The fisherman does just that, and the magic fish grants the poor man a wish for a nicer cottage. The fisherman arrives home to that very cottage. His wife berates him because he didn't ask for more and sends him back. This happens several times with the wife's demands escalating each time. Finally, the fish has had enough and sends the fisherman home to his original hovel. Tcherepnin responds with a quasi-tone poem in several movements -- a modest Sheherezade, without the genius vulgar tunes and the gorgeous orchestration. Nevertheless, Tcherepnin tells the tale and suggests the flash of the fish, the browbeaten fisherman, and the short-tempered wife. My favorite movement, a pompous march, represents the wife (now empress) and her court. In its ponderousness, it reminds me a bit of "Bydlo" from Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition.

I like the 14 Sketches best of all -- 14 miniature character-pieces based on Alexander Benois's Alphabet Book in Pictures. Benois, a painter, belonged to the Diaghilev circle, involved in the World of Art journal and designing sets and costumes (including those of Petrushka) for the Ballets Russes. The Alphabet Book, inspired by Benois's children, illustrates each letter of the Russian alphabet with a watercolor picture of a word beginning with that letter -- an "A is for Apple" affair. The book counts as one of the glories of Tsarist publishing. Some sneer at musical miniaturists, but I believe their art a difficult one. It takes a lot to ramp up one's inspiration to the necessary BTUs to pull off a successful miniature. You haven't the symphonist's luxury to fall back and regroup.

Obviously, Tcherepnin doesn't intend this work as a major statement, but each piece charms. The opener -- portraying a stage moor, brandishing his sword before the curtain -- shows both Benois's and Tcherepnin's attraction to the theatrical. One of the nicer bits of lagniappe in the liner notes (by David Witten) is the inclusion of Benois's watercolors. You really do see the pull of the stage on the artist. Almost everything looks like a set, a tableau vivant, or a costume design. Tcherepnin responds in vivid short strokes. "Baba Yaga," the Russian witch also residing in Mussorgsky's "Hut on Fowl's Legs," flies through the air. "The General" is a children's march of a type that goes back at least to Schumann. "Egypt" and "The Khan" belong to the tradition of Russian orientalia, and the bare fifths and whole-tone runs of the first show Impressionism's debt to the Russians, while the second takes a Borodinish melodic line. "Stars" and "The Tzarina" are the pieces closest to Rimsky and the Mighty Five, in their avoidance of dominant-tonic cadence. "Mama" echoes Mussorgsky's feeling for childhood, with its falling fifth evoking the crying of a doll. "Bed-time" sings a melancholy Russian lullaby, interrupted by, according to the composer, the rambunctiousness of the kids who want to stay up. "The Forest," my favorite of Benois's illustrations, depicts an odd, alien moon glimpsed through the trees. Tcherepnin fails to match its eerie power, but he gives it a decent shot by eschewing melody altogether in favor of strangely-unsettled harmonies, and at four minutes, the piece counts as one of the longest in the set.

Kudos to pianist and annotator David Witten for bringing this project forward. None of this music takes the brain- and soul-power of, say, the Waldstein, but Witten takes these charmers out for a lovely spin. Above all, he "tells the tale" of the music. Kudos to Toccata for bringing this classy production to light.

S.G.S. (September 2011)