Album Title: Tcherepnin Symphonies 1 & 2, Piano Concerto 5
Noriko Ogawa piano/Lan Shui conductor/Singapore Symphony
Label and #: BIS 1017
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On an October evening of 1927, fourteen years after the hullabaloo of the Rite of Spring debut, the Parisian audience was sent into rioting mood once more by another Russian composition, Alexander Tcherepni's Symphony No.1.
Born 1899, Alexander was brought up in St. Petersburg studying music and law. His father was the famous composer Nikolai Tcherepnin (1873-1945), a pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov and conductor of Serge Diaghilev's famed Ballet Russe. With family friends like Glazunov, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Chaliapin, Diaghilev, Pavlova and Fokine, young Tcherepnin was born with an elite VIP pass to this cultural celebrity circle.

After the Revolution, the family moved to Georgia's Tiblisi capital where the ancient traditional folk music was to shape young Tcherepnin's stylistic development. Eventually, he invented his own tonal system (dubbed Tcherepnin scale by scholars) and the derivative counterpoint application called Interpoint based on Georgian and oriental folk music. Although Tcherepnin's creative style never departed from a center key (tonality), some conservative concert goers of his time still found it cacophonous and incomprehensible.

Soon after emigrating to Paris in 1921, Tcherepnin began his career as piano virtuoso, an enviable position that took him around the world. In the mid thirties, he spent some fruitful years in China teaching in the Shanghai Conservatory and later in Japan publishing young Asian composers' works and helping them gaining international recognition. One of them was my favorite Chinese composer Jiang Wen-ye. Tcherepnin then relocated to Paris with his Chinese pianist wife Lee Hsien-ming and moved to the USA after the war. Subsequently he had to divide his time between the USA and Europe until he died in Paris in 1977.

Tcherepnin's First Symphony is a masterpiece that proudly embodies the Tcherepnin scale and Interpoint involving six contrapuntal parts. To help myself understand the Tcherepnin scale, I called upon Wikipedia and found the above notation. Compared to the normal well-tempered chromatic scale, this has its own systematic way of semi- and whole-tone progression. Try playing it on your instrument and you'll appreciate that peculiar ancient folk-song feeling. However, to the conservative ears of Tcherepnin's time, this distorted the melody (if there was any) and caused enough dissonance to stir up a tumult. In today's context, the First Symphony is tenuously avant-garde although the musical language remains abstract compared to the Romantic school. The first movement with fanfare introduction and
motorized rhythm is almost as entertaining as The Rite of Spring and the second movement is sheer stroke of genius. Purely composed for unpitched percussion instruments that include cymbals, bass drum, snare drum, gong, castanet, triangle, tam-tam and beating the back of violins with the bows, it's a rare high-fidelity showpiece that's been vividly captured by the Swedish BIS recording team.

The Second Symphony was written during the war in 1947 and subsequently orchestrated in 1951 after Tcherepnin's relocation to the USA. Rafael Kubelik premiered it in Chicago to great critical acclaim. The Tcherepnin scale was replaced by the effective use of the pentatonic which imbues an ancient folklore spirit. Emotional traits hinting at the loss of his father and the agony of war are evident throughout its four movements, making it more akin to traditional symphonic values. Dynamic orchestration that involves a large percussion section with celesta and piano unleashes the expressive power of the work. I find the last two movements strikingly direct and listenable, not to mention sonically fulfilling. They are almost like the war symphonies of Shostakovich.

The Piano Concerto No. 5 was written in 1956 and based on the composer's new tonal experiments. No need to be alarmed however. This is easily accessible if Prokofiev is your cup of tea. The three movements are contrasting in mood not just due to different tempi but heterogeneous tonal and harmonic designs. The first movement is chromatic and therefore the most "pleasant" yet so happens to also display the most similarity to Prokofiev. The second is modal without semi tones and sounds like Middle Ages Gregorian chants or even Slavonic folk music. The final movement is diatonic (think of all the white keys on the piano in a C major scale) to give the music a neo-classical flavor like some of Stravinsky's and Satie's work, say Petroushka and Embryons Desseches .

If memory serves, Chinese conductor Lan Shui was the first to document the complete Tcherepnin symphonies. Under his baton, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra exemplifies the virtuosity of a world-class ensemble with skillfully disciplined coordination and a naturally rich sonority that results in the most effortless expressiveness. Shui's insightful reading into such complexity as Tcherepnin's orchestration is formidable and convincing. The tight synchromesh percussion in the second movement of the First Symphony is humanized with humour and elasticity. The bird-song tranquility of the principal violin in the third movement is endearingly delicate yet has the power to penetrate.

The Second Symphony is arguably the sonically more attractive with its fine balance between layered details and tutti con brio and a perfect example of artistic collaboration between conductor and recording engineer. Japanese pianist Noriko Ogawa firmly established her indisputable status of Tcherepnin champion with her complete cycle of piano concertos. Her deftly pointillist runs and legato romantic phrases are always in sync with her spontaneous pulse. Her majestic embellishment defies bombardment by Tcherepnin's heavy orchestral artilleries and somehow makes them work to her advantage. If there's such thing as musical dignity, I've just found the definition in this recording.