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.
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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
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
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
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,
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)