N. Tcherepnin: Piano Music
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Nikolai Tcherepnin: Piano Music

Catalogue Number: TOCC0117
EAN: 5060113441171
Release Date: 13 June 2011
Duration: 65:43

Three Pieces, Op. 24
14 Sketches on Pictures from the Russian Alphabet, Op. 38
The Fisherman and the Fish, Op. 41

David Witten, piano

Nikolai Tcherepnin (1873–1945) – a student of Rimsky-Korsakov and teacher of Prokofiev – was a Russian-born composer and conductor, and the first of his family’s musical dynasty. His piano music reveals a diversity of influences: the Three Pieces (c. 1890) have echoes of Chopin and Rachmaninov; the Fourteen Sketches on Pictures from the Russian Alphabet (1908) are miniature tone-poems inspired by Alexander Benois’ beautifully illustrated alphabet book for children; and The Fisherman and the Fish (c. 1914) is a vivid musical depiction of this Pushkin poem, complete with watery splashes!

Booklet texts   (PDF)

Track Listing, MP3 Downloads and Streaming Samples

Track No. Track Title / Details Duration Sample Add to Cart
1-3 Three Pieces, Op. 24 (c. 1890)

Nikolai Tcherepnin, composer
David Witten, piano

(first recording)
1 No. 1, Rêverie 3:43 play
2 No. 2, Étude 4:41 play
3 No. 3, Idylle 6:16 play
4-17 Fourteen Sketches on Pictures from the Russian Alphabet, Op. 38 (1908)

Nikolai Tcherepnin, composer
David Witten, piano

(first recording)
4 No. 1, Moor 1:08 play
5 No. 2, Baba-Yaga 1:20 play
6 No. 3, General 1:19 play
7 No. 4, Dacha 2:52 play
8 No. 5, Egypt 2:44 play
9 No. 6, Stars 2:33 play
10 No. 7, Mama 1:41 play
11 No. 8, The Lake 1:52 play
12 No. 9, Bed-time 4:37 play
13 No. 10, The Forest 3:55 play
14 No. 11, Sweets 1:44 play
15 No. 12, The Khan 2:50 play
16 No. 13, Tzarina 2:38 play
17 No. 14, Stuffed Bear 1:41 play
18-23 The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish, Op. 41 (c. 1914)

Nikolai Tcherepnin, composer
David Witten, piano

(first recording)
18 I. Andantino commodo 2:14 play
19 II. Moderato assai 3:20 play
20 III. Moderato assai molto risoluto 3:18 play
21 IV. Andantino mosso 1:50 play
22 V. Marziale maestoso 2:58 play
23 VI. Molto sostenuto 4:29 play


Nikolai Tcherepnin

Nikolai Tcherepnin, composer

David Witten

David Witten, piano


I have never seen a better booklet for a single disc

Nikolai Tcherepnin (1873-1945), composer, conductor, teacher, and accomplished pianist, is the patriarch of several generations of Tcherepnins in the musical world. His son Alexander (1899-1977) is probably the most prolific and best-known composer. Alexander’s sons Serge and Ivan were established musicians, and Ivan won awards for his compositions. Two of Ivan’s sons are currently beginning to achieve some recognition as composers. The website www.tcherepnin.com is a good place for information on the family. David Witten is an outstanding advocate for this music. His academic credentials are impressive, as is his performance and recording history. His considerable pianistic talents are matched by his exemplary booklet notes. The booklet contains color reproductions of all 14 illustrations from Alexander Benois’s children’s (Cyrillic) alphabet book. There is also an excellent English translation of Pushkin’s fairy tale about the ‘Fisherman and the Fish’. I have never seen a better booklet for a single disc. The recorded piano sound is quite good, and Witten says that these are all world premiere recordings. Tcherepnin was only a few weeks younger than Rachmaninoff and outlived him by just a couple of years. This music closely resembles the piano music of Glazounov or the early music of Rachmaninoff, up through his Op. 10 pieces. While there is a certain unmistakable Russian character to the music, it is not as obvious as in the works of “The Five” or the nostalgic yearning of later Rachmaninoff. But this is finely crafted music that is always interesting. I cannot imagine a better, more complete introduction to a relatively unknown composer.

James Harrington American Record Guide January 2012

Colorful and evocative and well worth a listen

Despite my avid interest in Russian music, I have up to now had little familiarity with the music of Nikolai Tcherepnin (1873–1945). This no doubt represents a dereliction on my part, given the important position Tcherepnin occupied in the musical life of late Imperial Russia, as a student of Rimsky-Korsakov, the teacher of Prokofiev, a professor at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and a prominent pianist and conductor. He was also the progenitor of a long line of composers, including his son Alexander, three grandsons, and two great-grandsons. On the other hand, not that much of his music is currently available on recordings. ArkivMusic lists only eight discs, not including the one under review, and only two of these are devoted exclusively to Tcherepnin’s music. The present disc is billed as a first recording of all the pieces involved, and I have no reason to question that claim. The three works on this release cover a limited period in Tcherepnin’s career, from the early 1890s through 1914. Nothing is offered from the 24 years after his emigration to Paris in 1921, when he might have shown more influence from modernist tendencies. However, his output for solo piano was not extensive, and I don’t know whether he actually wrote anything for that instrument in his later years. The list of his works suggests that he was more inclined to composition for orchestra, and he in fact later orchestrated the piano pieces of opp. 38 and 41. Nonetheless, he was reputed to be an accomplished pianist, and his writing for the instrument is thoroughly idiomatic.

The three pieces of op. 24, the earliest work on the disc, are titled “Réverie,” “Étude,” and “Idylle.” The notes suggest that the stormy C-Minor “Étude” is modeled on Chopin’s “Revolutionary” Etude, but I think the clearest stylistic parallel in these pieces is Rachmaninoff. There is no issue of imitation here, since the two composers were almost exact contemporaries and Rachmaninoff had not yet achieved prominence as a composer at this time. Any similarity is presumably the result of common musical and cultural influences. The second work on this disc derives from the illustrated alphabet book for children published in 1903 by the well-known artist Alexander Benois, who happened to be an uncle of Tcherepnin’s wife. In this book each letter of the Russian alphabet was associated with a word (or in some cases two words), with illustrations of those words in scenes from Russian life and folklore and occasionally from exotic, oriental locales. Tcherepnin’s musical depiction of 14 of these illustrations (covering less than half the Russian alphabet) was completed in 1908. Although on a much more modest scale than Mussorgsky’s celebrated pianistic rendition of visual art, these pieces are colorful and inventive. Given their programmatic inspiration, they predictably have more of a nationalistic Russian character, their style reflecting the tradition of Rimsky-Korsakov and his fellow composers of the Mighty Handful, although with some influence from French Impressionism. The fifth piece in this suite, “Egypt,” is quite suggestive of Debussy. No. 10 (“The Forest”) contains a thematic reference to Rimsky’s Sadko. No. 2 (“Baba-Yaga,” a depiction of the fearsome witch of Russian folklore) might have given Prokofiev the idea for the motoric writing in some of his piano works.

The final work on this disc is a musical representation of a verse tale by Alexander Pushkin, in which a poor and humble fisherman catches a magic fish, who offers to grant his every wish in return for freedom, but the voracious demands of the fisherman’s greedy wife eventually leave them with nothing. Tcherepnin’s suite consists of six short movements that were intended to be interspersed with readings of Pushkin’s stanzas, but it is perfectly capable of standing alone as a compelling piece of music. This work was completed in 1914, after Tcherepnin had made several visits to Paris to participate as conductor and composer in the performances of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Rich in harmonic color, it is strongly influenced by French Impressionism, although with a definite Russian tinge.

David Witten’s performances are technically accomplished and appropriately nuanced throughout. The recorded sound is clear and spacious. The piano tone is generally firm and solid, although there can be some ringing in peaks in high volume playback. The pianist contributes detailed and informative notes, which include the Benois illustrations that inspired 14 Sketches and a translation of Pushkin’s verse tale. Nothing on this disc is of towering stature or striking originality, but it is all colorful and evocative and well worth a listen, so I recommend this release to anyone interested in Russian music of this period.

Daniel Morrison Fanfare November 2011

Bright, forward, and lifelike

Even if this album weren’t well played (which it is), it would still be good to have as a representative of Tcherepnin’s art. Nikolai Tcherepnin (1873–1945) was a member of Rimsky-Korsakov’s inner circle, and his name appears frequently in the memoirs of another member of the group, Vasily Yastrebtsev. Tcherepnin’s own memoirs, now online at tcherepnin.com, briefly discuss both the musical pleasure he felt at becoming aware of Russian Nationalist scores, and the joy brought him by Rimsky-Korsakov’s characteristic mix of benevolence, teaching, and advocacy. One of the comments he attributes to Rimsky-Korsakov might well stand as informing everything on this disc: “Always remember that in true art there must be nothing left unfinished; there must be nothing that does not contribute to its artistic shape; nothing that does not serve its end; not a single haphazard note or bit of orchestration; nothing that could be replaced without changing the sense of the work or its entire musical realization.”

This almost lapidary approach to the final state of a composition, a sense of conclusion that goes beyond a superficial need for polish, makes itself known right away. The Three Pieces, dating in all likelihood from the 1890s, are Chopinesque studies crafted with an exacting hand. The second, an Etude in C Minor, plays heavily and ingeniously on a bell-like pedal point in the left hand, after a manner associated in later times with Tcherepnin’s contemporary Rachmaninoff, while the third, a wistful Idylle in D-Major, evokes not just the composer’s great good friend Liadov, but also early Debussy—assuming Tcherepnin was familiar with and influenced by the youthful Frenchman’s piano music at that time, as he would undeniably be later.

The 14 Sketches on Pictures from the Russian Alphabet was composed in 1908. It drew its inspiration from the pages of an illustrated children’s book, Alphabet Book in Pictures, that feature letters matched to words, visualized in beautifully detailed illustrations of domestic scenes and fairytales. (To its considerable credit, Toccata Classics includes fully colored reproductions of each of the original images.) The influence is that of Schumann and Liadov, though there’s an appearance by Baba Yaga. (Tcherepnin’s depiction of her in one of her two creative methods of transportation, employing an oversized mortar and pestle to fly through the air, is admittedly far less atmospheric than Mussorgsky’s portrayal in Pictures at an Exhibition of her hut frenetically running along on giant chicken’s legs.) Highlights in this uneven but attractive work include “General” (a small boy leading a battalion of tin soldiers, in a mildly ironic march that recalls Bizet and Chabrier); “Stars” (“Learned men in wigs explain the movement of the stars to nobles”), employing a gentle trumpet-like theme treated with some harmonic subtlety; and the amusing “Bedtime” (“The old nursemaid prepares the children for bed”), with its contrast between a mournful, Dies irae-like theme and its spirited interruptions.

The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish, completed before 1915, received an unusual treatment from Tcherepnin. Its six sketches were meant to be interspersed with sections of Pushkin’s original fairy tale, recited by a narrator. (The narrator is left out on this recording, but a translation of the entire work is thoughtfully included, along with suggested break points for reading.) The music is descriptive and transformative, rather like some ballets, instead of traditionally structured with conventional development. It is brilliantly done, the unfailingly inspired content freed of conventional structural restraints, and varied in style (Russian Nationalism alongside Debussy and Scriabin) and expressivity. If not for its extremely pianistic writing, this series of pieces would indeed make an excellent and popular ballet.

David Witten unfailingly finds the right approach to each of these selections. His technique, especially his right hand, is up to the challenge of this sometimes daunting music, and he demonstrates an ease with late 19th-century expressiveness that does not always sit so easily on the shoulders of his colleagues. There may be more pointed drama in “Stuffed Bear,” or greater color to be mined in “The Forest” and “The Khan,” but there’s plenty of both to be found here, and an ability to capture the poetic moment Tcherepnin so plainly cherished.

The sound is bright, forward, and lifelike. With excellent notes by the pianist, this is a disc that will hopefully generate not merely sales of itself, but interest in its seldom-heard composer.

Barry Brenesal Fanfare November 2011

Stunningly beautiful music

Nicolai Tcherepnin was Prokofiev’s teacher, Diaghilev’s principal conductor, and the father of Alexander, composer of popular Bagatelles, Op. 10. He was also the composer of stunningly beautiful music, as evidenced by this collection. Tcherepnin illustrates the essence of Late Romanticism and a thorough knowledge and synthesis of his musical enviroment in the early and lovely Three Pieces, Op. 24. Fourteen Sketches on Pieces from the Russian Alphabet are miniatures based on an ilustrated children’s book, and the CD notes include the beautiful drawings that inpired Tcherepnin. The final work, The Fisherman and the Fish, is an engaging example of musical characterization and sensitivity to text. David Witten is to be commended for bringing these works to our attention through effective interpretations and informative liner notes. The recording represents an enlightening and very enjoyable intersection of Russian music, art, and literature. Highly recommended.

Denise Parr–Scanlin Clavier Companion November 2011

Each piece charms

Leave it to Toccata Classics to come up with a program of interesting music you probably haven't heard before. […]

I like the 14 Sketches best of all – 14 miniature character-pieces based on Alexander Benois's Alphabet Book in Pictures. Benois, a painter, belonged to the Diaghilev circle, involved in the World of Art journal and designing sets and costumes (including those of Petrushka) for the Ballets Russes. The Alphabet Book, inspired by Benois's children, illustrates each letter of the Russian alphabet with a watercolor picture of a word beginning with that letter -- an ‘A is for Apple’ affair. The book counts as one of the glories of Tsarist publishing. […]

Obviously, Tcherepnin doesn't intend this work as a major statement, but each piece charms. The opener – portraying a stage moor, brandishing his sword before the curtain – shows both Benois's and Tcherepnin's attraction to the theatrical. One of the nicer bits of lagniappe in the liner notes (by David Witten) is the inclusion of Benois's watercolors. You really do see the pull of the stage on the artist. Almost everything looks like a set, a tableau vivant, or a costume design. Tcherepnin responds in vivid short strokes. ‘Baba Yaga,’ the Russian witch also residing in Mussorgsky's ‘Hut on Fowl's Legs,’ flies through the air. ‘The General’ is a children's march of a type that goes back at least to Schumann. ‘Egypt’ and ‘The Khan’ belong to the tradition of Russian orientalia, and the bare fifths and whole-tone runs of the first show Impressionism's debt to the Russians, while the second takes a Borodinish melodic line. ‘Stars’ and ‘The Tzarina’ are the pieces closest to Rimsky and the Mighty Five, in their avoidance of dominant-tonic cadence. ‘Mama’ echoes Mussorgsky's feeling for childhood, with its falling fifth evoking the crying of a doll. ‘Bed-time’ sings a melancholy Russian lullaby, interrupted by, according to the composer, the rambunctiousness of the kids who want to stay up. ‘The Forest,’ my favorite of Benois's illustrations, depicts an odd, alien moon glimpsed through the trees. Tcherepnin fails to match its eerie power, but he gives it a decent shot by eschewing melody altogether in favor of strangely-unsettled harmonies, and at four minutes, the piece counts as one of the longest in the set.

Kudos to pianist and annotator David Witten for bringing this project forward. None of this music takes the brain- and soul-power of, say, the Waldstein, but Witten takes these charmers out for a lovely spin. Above all, he ‘tells the tale’ of the music. Kudos to Toccata for bringing this classy production to light.

Steve Schwartz Classical CD Review September 2011

Autant de vignettes musicales au charme

Les Quatorze esquisses imaginées d’après le livre d’alphabet pour enfants d’Alexandre Benois (de magnifiques illustrations en couleurs sont reproduites dans la notice) offrent le meilleur moment de ce disque. Elles font alterner des pages d’une nostalgie on ne peut plus russe, des marches teintées d’ironie, des rythmes d’inspiration espagnole, des moments plus mystérieux, voire lugubres. Autant de vignettes musicales au charme certain, marquées par un goût pour les contes de fées et le fantastique.

Bertrand Boissard Diapason September 2011

Wonderfully evocative music

All hail Toccata Classics for its promotion of underrepresented composers and unknown works.

Everything here is a première recording. These works date from Tcherepnin’s Russian years. His output for solo piano was not large, consisting solely of sets of smaller works. I suspect a second CD would cover it entirely. If the rest is as engaging as what is presented here, that CD would be most welcome! […] Toccata’s booklet thoughtfully includes colour reproductions of Benois’s illustrations and brief descriptions [From the Alphabet Book in Pictures]. As for Tcherepnin’s music, it is wonderfully evocative yet largely free of clichés. The subject may be childhood, but the writing is too difficult for most children, and the treatment certainly is not childish. The composer later orchestrated 12 of these; it would be good to hear them! […] There’s no doubting Witten’s affection and sympathy for Tcherepnin’s music, and he is a capable technician. […] The recording puts the piano in an ideal spot, in relation to the listener, and reproduces it faithfully.

Raymond S. Tuttle International Record Review July 2011

Revealed in all his pianistic glory

Nikolai Tcherepnin (1873-1945), patriach of a still-thriving musical dynasty, student of Rimsky-Korsakov and teacher of Prokofiev, is revealed in all his pianistic glory in these fascinating first recordings, from the lushly romantic early "Three Pieces", with their tinges of Chopin and Rachmaninov, to a charmingly original set of tone poems based on children's alphabet sketches, which display just why his friends teasingly called him "Debussy Ravelovich". David Witten is entirely at home in the vivid imagery of "The Fisherman and the Fish" – all watery splashes and flashing sunlight. Enchanting stuff.

Stephen Pritchard The Observer 15th May 2011


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