The Flying Inkpot — Alexander Tcherepnin Piano Concerti 2 and 4, Magna Mater, Symphonic Prayer
Symphonic Prayer, Op.93 (1959) Maestoso
Piano Concerto No.2, Op.26 (1923) Vivo
Magna mater, Op.41 (1926/27) Moderato tranquilo
Piano Concerto No.4 (Fantaisie), Op.78 (1947)
I. Eastern Chamber Dream
II. Yan Kuei Feis Love Sacrifice
III. Road to Yunnan
Noriko Ogawa, piano
Singapore Symphony Orchestra, orchestra
Lan Shui, conductor
BIS CD 1247
The single movement Piano Concerto No.2 is a work that grows on you on repeated listening. The same resemblance in terms of thematic material to Shostakovich exists here, but Tcherepnin’s way with the piano is totally different — somewhat between a Prokofiev and a Rachmaninoff, if you can imagine it. Writing a work out of one or two themes lasting the eighteen minutes as this one does while varying them so that they don’t outlast their welcome is not as easy as it may sound, but Tcherepnin manages this just fine, and rather cleverly at that. The work sounds to me inherently virtuosic and full of vivacity in the solo part, something which Ogawa chooses not to exploit — this same reluctance to indulge in virtuosity came to the fore during the pre-recording concerts as well. I thought a less laid-back approach to the work would have left a deeper immediate impression — Tcherepnin was after all a virtuoso in his own right. This might be the way the “Russian school” of pianists would play it if they did — I can imagine some Russian piano competition-winner “rediscovering” this work and popularizing it in future — but what’s wrong with some full-blooded piano playing? Orchestra and soloist put up a solid enough performance, but I think just that bit more of excitement would go a long way to the advocacy of this work.
Tcherepnin lived in China and Japan for a long time, and much of the culture, at the least the musical part of it, influenced him heavily. The Fourth Piano Concerto is probably one of the best examples of this. The piece is infused with pentatonic music that sounds thoroughly Oriental, with Japanese-sounding passages in the first movement “Wu Song Kills the Tiger” — a famous Chinese tale of a brave man who ventures up the mountain to kill the tiger that has been terrorizing his village. The opening is somewhat reminiscent of the fairy-tale atmosphere that is evoked in Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, but Tcherepnin quickly establishes his own idiom, sounding rather like Prokofiev here. The arrival of the tiger is heralded ominously by low brass, while Wu Song’s own theme is in a clear pentatonic — much like Peter and his wolf, one might say. The coda of the first movement is much like a grand procession. This movement could easily be played as a stand-alone, so strong a sense of finality and jubilation is there in its coda.
The second, slow movement is rather an exercise in chinoiserie again, but Tcherepnin interrupts it each time with an interpolation of a spiky, playful Western idiom with the Chinese. For what it’s worth, it sounds to me nothing like what Yang Kui Fei’s (to give the proper name again) love sacrifice should sound like. It is however tuneful and quite charming.
The last movement “Road to Yunnan”, the notes explain, expresses the joy that one feels when travelling on a fine day on the south-west Chinese province of Yunnan, and well it does too, except that it sounds like the music is from a different place (Jiangnan). Whichever the case, this is light and down-to-earth music, folk-like and playful.
The three movements on the whole don’t really go together, I feel, except for the Chinese/pentatonic themes that bind them, but taken on their own they are very successful and give the listener of how the composer weaved the Chinese influences into his own writing.
Shui Lan and Ogawa work hand-in-glove here, and present a very successful performance of the work, though once again that last bit of playfulness is missing. Ogawa has a lot more to play here, and she plays it well. This work should be attempted and played more often!
Two overtures/orchestral works complete the disc — the Symphonic Prayer and Magna Mater. Magna Mater was his first purely orchestral work and describes a ritual that occured in the cult of the Magna Mater, or The Great Mother, thought of some as the oldest religion in the world. The cult was very Amazonian, and men who wanted to become part of the priesthood had to castrate themselves. The music here is colorful, dissonant and rhythmic in a Sacre du Primtemps way, orgiastic and estatic in the coda. I thought SSO and Shui Lan could have been wilder, but it is still a very good recording.
Symphonic Prayer is marked Maestoso and to my ears has shades of Shostakovich in many places, even similar orchestration. It is very Russian and doesn’t sound prayer-like at all — the middle section sounds militant and combative. But it ends, full of hope after all the hurly-burly in the middle.
The BIS recording is natural and excellently balanced, and Noriko Ogawa, Shui Lan and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra are to be congratulated for a brave attempt at “new” music!
Derek Lim remembers the Tcherepnin concerts of a few years ago, not always fondly 🙂
Interesting websites to go to from here:
The Tcherepnin Society http://www.tcherepnin.com/
The Cult of the Magna Mater http://hem.bredband.net/arenamontanus/Mage/magna.html365: 12.12.1998 Chia Han-Leon