Notes and Editorial Reviews
Cello Sonatas: No. 1 in D,
No. 3 in F#/f#,
for Cello and Piano.
The Well-Tempered Cello,
for Cello and Piano,
Songs and Dances,
Michal Kanka (vc); Miguel Borges Coelho (pn)
PRAGA 250290 (SACD: 77:34)
Let me begin by saying that Alexander Tcherepnin (1899–1977) is a composer represented by exactly one other CD in my collection, so I can’t claim much in the way of familiarity with his music. As serendipity would have it, though, that one other CD just happens to be Chandos 9770, which is an exact duplicate of the program on this new Praga release. The Chandos disc, which features cellist Alexander Ivashkin and pianist Geoffrey Tozer, was recorded in 1999, and, at the time, laid claim to being premiere recordings of these works.
Following the 1917 Revolution, Tcherepnin and his family fled St. Petersburg (then Petrograd) for the temporarily safe haven of Tbilisi, but when Georgia became part of the Soviet bloc, the Tcherepnins headed for France, where they remained through the Second World War. In 1948, Alexander and his wife set out for the U.S., settled in Chicago, became citizens, and taught at DePaul University. Premieres of Tcherepnin’s works were given by Rafael Kubelík and Fritz Reiner in Chicago and by Charles Munch in Boston.
Tcherepnin was an experimenter. Through a process of combining Russian, Georgian, modal, and pentatonic scales, he came up with his own nine-note scale, which, not inappropriately, came to be called “the Tcherepnin scale,” the notes of which are C-Db-Eb-E-F-G-Ab-A-B-(C). On closer examination, one finds in this sequence a symmetry that has a certain mathematical elegance to it. The nine notes—10 with the concluding C at the octave—form a chain of three interlocking identical tetrachords:
The interval relationships of each tetrachord—half-step, whole-step, half-step—are the same. In other words, these are three iterations of the same four-note interval patterns. The idea, not unique or entirely original to Tcherepnin, has its foundations in Messiaen’s theory of “modes of limited transposition.”
Does Tcherepnin rely on his nine-note scale for any of these pieces other than
The Well-Tempered Cello
(12 Preludes on a scale of nine Intervals)? I’m afraid I can’t say. The booklet note, while very informative, doesn’t give musical examples or delve into each work at that level of detail. But the Sonata No. 3, which is in both F#-Major and F#-Minor is perhaps indicative of Tcherepnin’s putting theory into practice, although that’s not really definitive either, since there are many examples of music that employ bitonal and bimodal techniques without resorting to complex synthetic scales.
Another idea to spring from Tcherepnin’s experimental laboratory was something he called “interpunctus”—i.e., “interpoint”—to differentiate it from counterpoint. Frankly, trying to grasp the concept is like trying to wrap one’s head around what the opposite of the not opposite is. It’s itself. The definition provided by note author Pierre E. Barbier (translated by John Tyler Tuttle), is a tortured tautology that ends up defining the very thing that “interpoint” is supposed to be the opposite of, counterpoint. To wit: “This technique serves to transmit complex rhythmic information with a maximum of clarity and to keep the different musical registers separate to the ear.” How is that not counterpoint?
I will concede that rhythmic complexity is perhaps the most dominant feature of all but a few of the tracks on this disc, the exceptions being the two-minute
and the slow movements of the sonatas. But even those slow movements exhibit a kind of restlessness and nervous energy that never quite finds a place of peace and calm. Tcherepnin’s music strikes me as being interesting and attention-grabbing but without ever being really engaging or absorbing.
I find no evidence in the
Archive that the above-cited Chandos CD of Tcherepnin’s cello and piano works was ever reviewed, and I’m not sure if it’s even still in general circulation, though Amazon seems to have it in stock and will sell you a copy for $48.88! Take the leading “4” off of it and that would probably be a reasonable price. Ivashkin and Tozer adopt generally quicker tempos throughout, shaving 10 minutes off Kanka and Coelho’s total disc time—67:32 vs. 77:34.
Performance-wise, I would have to say that I prefer the more robust tone of Kanka’s cello to Ivashkin’s somewhat pinched, nasal-sounding instrument, but Tozer seems to be a bit more alert to Tcherepnin’s ever-shifting metric and rhythmic complexities in the piano parts than Coelho is. As for the recordings, Chandos always manages to put out impressive-sounding CDs, and the Ivashkin/Tozer is no exception, but this brand new Praga SACD is more alive and resonant. Given that the Chandos may be hard to come by, and potentially very expensive, if you have an interest in this music, I’d definitely recommend you go with this new release.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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