Music: From Russia With Love

Growing up in pre-revolutionary Russia, Alexander Tcherepnin (pronounced cher-up-neen) imbibed music from his composer father, Nicolai, and his mother, an accomplished pianist and singer. “There was plenty of music paper around our home,” he recalled in his autobiography. “I observed how my father was writing his scores and tried to do the same while alone.” In fact, Nicolai Tcherepnin was quite gifted both as a composer and a conductor. Sergey Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes started with one of his scores. Nicolai Tcherepnin also taught such distinguished students as Sergei Prokofiev. Regular visitors to the Tcherepnin home included Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Alexander Konstantinovich Glazunov, and Igor Stravinsky. “So it happened,” Tcherepnin wrote, “that I learned how to write music and how to notate my musical ideas before I learned how to write, even before I learned the alphabet.”

The end result was that, by his death in 1977, Tcherepnin had produced four symphonies, six piano concertos, 13 ballets, four operas, numerous other orchestral and chamber pieces, and more than 200 piano works. He also produced two sons, Serge and Ivan, who also became composers. If it sounds as if music ran in the blood of the Tcherepnin family, that is exactly how Alexander spoke of it during his life: “Music never stops working in me,” he said. “It is as if musical sounds are part of my blood circulation. In fact, I cannot separate myself from music. I love it above all, just as I love human beings.”

Thanks largely to the Olympia and Bis labels, Tcherepnin’s symphonies, piano concertos, and many piano pieces are now available, along with other works, in brillant performances that show just how vital the surge of music was in his bloodstream. It is not surprising for a composer to whom music was so much a part of life that his compositions are both accessible and exciting. Also, Tcherepnin never seems to have stopped assimilating the musical influences surrounding him. As his surroundings changed dramatically due to the Russian Revolution, World War II, and other vagaries of life, those influences varied considerably, giving his music a highly eclectic sound.

After being grounded in the Russian classics in St. Petersburg, Tcherepnin was first displaced to Tiflis, Georgia, where his father took over the musical conservatory until the Russian Revolution forced them to flee to Paris. In Georgia, Tcherepnin absorbed the unusual scales used in the folk music of the Caucasus and formalized them into his own nine-tone scale (three tetrachords). In Paris, he became French to the extent that his orchestration became a miracle of transparency and deftness of touch. Paris in the 1920s was the avant-garde musical Mecca, and Tcherepnin joined in the wild experiments of the time, producing in his First Symphony a movement for unpitched percussion alone that almost caused a riot.

At age 35, Tcherepnin arrived in China on a concert tour. Entranced, he remained for four years and took up teaching, and what he called his “folk cure” as a recovery from his technical experiments. He adopted the Chinese pentatonic scale, which resulted in some lovely musical chinoiserie in his works from this period onward.

The Sino-Japanese War drove Tcherepnin to the United States for a year before he returned to Paris, where he remained for the rest of World War II. In 1949, he moved to Chicago, where he lived for most of the rest of his life, teaching at DePaul University. He became an American citizen in 1958. Although Aaron Copland dubbed Tcherepnin “an honorary American composer,” there is no discernible American influence in his work. When listening to his music on several occasions, however, I have had the odd thought that Bernard Herman might have written something like this, or that George Gershwin, another Russian, already had.

Despite this highly variegated musical itinerary, Tcherepnin remained a Russian composer. His music continued to show the influence of both Stravinsky and, to a lesser degree, Prokofiev. I am also tempted to say that he was influenced by Shostakovich, because that is what I hear in the Second Piano Concerto. But Shostakovich was only 16 when Tcherepnin wrote this work in England. Was Shostakovich, then, the one influenced by Tcherepnin? Also, strangely enough, in the Third Symphony, I found a stretch of music that sounded uncannily similar to one of the works of Carl Nielsen’s student, Poul Schierbeck. Schierbeck was actually in Paris the year before Tcherepnin arrived in 1921. Could he have left a musical scent? We do know that Tcherepnin encountered Bohuslav Martinů in Paris as a fellow member of the École de Paris, a group of foreign composers living in France. The influence of Martinů’s music is palpable.

If you can imagine a melange of the above ingredients served up with panache, verve, and high-wire energy, then you will be prepared for the delights Tcherepnin has to offer. His music is strange without being entirely original. Each of its components can be identified as having come from a specific composer or place, but no one else put them together in quite this way. Tcherepnin rationalized his eclecticism by calling himself a “Eurasian composer.” His music is exciting and exhilarating, if not finally profound.

The place to begin exploring Tcherepnin’s works is his six piano concertos. Tcherepnin was a virtuoso pianist and enjoyed a stellar career in 36 countries. Many of his concerts consisted only of his own works. This immediately raises the suspicion of vanity productions. I have little patience with compositions that are more about the instrument for which they were written (or the prowess with which they can be played) than they are about music itself. On the evidence of these piano works, however, Tcherepnin did not fall prey to the narcissistic sensationalism of the virtuoso. All of the concertos have substantial musical merit, as well as thrills. They share some of the dynamism of Prokofiev’s works in this genre without their mechanical ferocity.

The First Concerto is a Romantic workout resembling those of Rimsky-Korsakov or even Rachmaninov, without the treacle of late Romanticism. The other works share in all of the influences already mentioned, including some exquisitely delicate chinoiserie in the Fourth Concerto, Fantaisie. Only the Third Concerto takes on an unattractive toughness from what seems to be one of Tcherepnin’s experiments in how far he could make dissonance work for him. All of the others are instantly accessible and thoroughly engaging.

The six concertos are available on two Olympia CDs in superb performances by the English pianist Murray McLachlan and Chetham’s Symphony Orchestra, under conductor Julian Clayton. McLachlan tosses off the bravura passages with ease and plays the softer ones with exquisite delicacy. The only shock comes from the realization that the excellent playing of the sometimes very difficult orchestral music is done by a student orchestra.

The Bis label has now recorded all four of Tcherepnin’s symphonies, along with Piano Concertos Nos. 5 and 6. The First Symphony is as close as Tcherepnin gets to “bad boy” music. It contains the percussion-only movement and in places seems to be more of an experiment in rhythm than a symphony. The other three works are neoclassical charmers, though that innocent description belies how unusual they are. Symphony No. 3 is especially good, despite its indebtedness to Stravinsky’s Petrushka. These works are orchestrated brilliantly.

Tcherepnin is confident enough in his materials to write sparely, even nakedly. That in itself grabs one’s attention. Yet, as he shows in the third movement of Symphony No. 3, he can build a magnificent climax. Throughout these works, Tcherepnin displays a high level of imagination and an ability to surprise, delight, and sometimes mystify. The traversal of these four works by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, under conductor Lan Shui, safely puts the few preceding recordings of these works in the shade. Noriko Ogawa also proves more than able in the two piano concertos. The sound is magnificent.

Tcherepnin wrote that “it is the form and not musical language that makes a composition long living. Every musical language becomes outdated sooner or later, but the message expressed by it in adequate form survives.” By his own standard, how long will Tcherepnin’s scintillating music last? My own guess is that these works are not immortal, but they are immensely enjoyable for the foreseeable future. Try these CDs and judge for yourself.

Robert Reilly recommends:

Piano Concertos Nos. 1, 4, and 5 — Olympia OCD 440

Piano Concertos Nos. 2, 3, and 6 Olympia — OCD 439

Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4 and Piano Concerto No. 6 — BIS-CD-1018

Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 and Piano Concerto No. 5 — BIS-CD-1017

Chamber Concerto in D major; Rhapsodie georgienne in A minor; Three Pieces for Chamber Orchestra; Serenade in D major — The Musica Viva Chamber Orchestra, under Alexander Rudin, Olympia OCD 584

Piano Music, Volume One — Olympia OCD 681

Piano Music, Volume Two — Olympia OCD 682 (Murray McLachlan)

Complete Music for Cello and Piano—  Chandos Chan 9770


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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