Alexander Tcherepnin was born in Saint Petersburg on January 21, 1899. His father was a composer who had studied with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. However, the family left Saint Petersburg after the 1917 Russian Revolution and would eventually settle in Paris. This became Tcherepnin’s base for an international career as a pianist and composer.
Tcherepnin had a generous share of champions, particularly among conductors, in the years following the Second World War. It appears, however, that he was the strongest advocate for his own piano music; and, by the time of his death in Paris of September 29, 1977, he had pretty much fallen out of fashion in most circles. However, since the turn of the century, Lan Shui, conductor of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, has become an enthusiastic advocate of Tcherepnin’s orchestral music, releasing a generous catalog of recordings.
While there is also some interest in reviving Tcherepnin’s piano music for performance, I recently discovered that Tcherepnin himself gave performances for broadcast in the Südwestrundfunk (SWR, “Southwest broadcasting”) studios, probably in Stuttgart, between 1958 and 1959. Recordings of those performances on the SWR>>music label were recently made available for digital download. Presumably, Tcherepnin made his own selections, meaning that we should probably take this album as representative of his work.
The major piece on this album is his Opus 81, a ten-movement suite entitled Expressions, composed in 1951. Each of the movements is almost haiku-like in its brevity, meaning that the entire composition takes about fifteen minutes to perform. Also in the spirit of haiku, each is an expression of a single image, somewhat in the spirit of some of the programmatic solos of Robert Schumann or Edvard Grieg, but far more concentrated. In addition, because Tcherepnin was particularly interested in experimenting with alternative scale systems, each image is “expressed” through a particularly distinctive approach to tonality, often through what seem to be rather unique interpretations of traditional Russian sonorities.
On the more abstract side the recording also includes Tcherepnin playing his first piano sonata (Opus 22). This was composed between 1918 and 1919, when the family was living in Tbilisi in Georgia, prior to moving on to Paris. It has the usual four movements but is decidedly unique in how it deploys its thematic materials, both within each movement and in its approach to overall architecture. Curiously, the duration of this “full-length” sonata is about the same as that of Expressions.
There are also two selections from the Opus 82 Songs without Words, composed between 1949 and 1953. Tcherepnin performs the first and fifth (last) of these songs, “Elegy” and “Hymn to Our Lady.” These are decidedly more lyrical and less adventurous than the longer pieces. The album then concludes with the longest-duration individual movements, the Opus 39 “Message,” which takes about ten minutes and demonstrates that Tcherepnin did not always limit his expressiveness to brevity.
All of this is definitely music worth discovering for the first time (or revisiting since who-knows-when); and listening to the music as Tcherepnin himself interpreted it only adds one more layer of value to the experience.