Exploring Tcherepnin’s “Flowering Staff”

cover - TOCC0537

TCHEREPNIN: My Flowering Staff: Epigraph; Songs I-XXXIII, XXXV-VI; Epilogue / Inna Dukach, sop; Paul Whelan, bs; Acmeist Male Choir; Tatyana Kebuladze, pno / Toccata Classics TOCC 0537

Here is one of those musical puzzles solved after nearly 100 years. From the back cover of the CD:

In 1925-26 the French publisher Heugel brought three volumes of 24 songs by the young Russian composer Alexander Tcherepnin (1899-1977), all setting poems by the “Acmeist” Russian poet, Sergei Gorodetsky (1884-1967) – Tcherepnin’s Opp. 15, 16 & 17. Not until 2014, when Tatanya Kebuladze, the pianist on this recording, examined the composer’s manuscript in the archives of the Sacher Foundation in Basel, was it realized that those three recuils were tips of a much larger iceberg: a cycle of 35 settings of the 37 poems in Gorodetzky’s collection My Flowering Staff, plus an anonymous Epilogue – one of the most extensive song-cycles in musical history. The songs themselves are audibly in the tradition of Tchaikovsky and other such Romantic Russian composers, but with a degree of psychological insight conveyed through the harmonic piquancy typical of the new century.

The opening Epigraph is typical of Tcherepnin’s work: a terse musical statement with a lyrical top line but harmonies leaning much more towards the recently-departed Alexander Scriabin. I would say that these songs, then, are more in the tradition of, say, Hugo Wolf or young Bartók, leaning on previous traditions while looking forward to something more interesting harmonically—note, for example, Song VII, “Forgive me the enticing mist.” Our intrepid Russian-American soprano, Inna Dukach, has a somewhat wiry voice with a bit of Slavic flutter, but she is a very expressive singer in her own right. She sings all of the songs but one, and that is No. XVI, “In the evening quiet hour,” which is given to bass Paul Whelan and the “Acmeist Male Choir.” Track 23 is a piano solo.

The poems on which the songs are based are Symbolist, which was fairly common in that era. Herewith the words to Song III as an example:

I contemplated you, O Andromeda nebula, –
The oblong light around the first nucleus,
The conceived game from a far-distant world
Was an omen of mysterious victory.

Through begetting the delight of creative joy
And pulverizing the reflection of God’s ingenuity,
You taught me to bear gaily and in freedom
The mobile fetters of existence.

I found Tcherepnin’s use of harmony endlessly fascinating. He uses chromaticism frequently to depict the Symbolist and sometimes unsettling nature of the words; even in a somewhat regularly tonal song such as “I am dreaming of the country,” there are touches in the turnarounds of phrases that tells you this is not a song by Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninov. In “My soul is happy to hear,” the harmony bounces around between tonality and chromaticism in an enticing manner. The point is that, really, none of the songs are predictable although, once you’ve heard them they are logical, if that makes sense to you.

The one song not sung by Dukach, “In the quiet evening hour,” is a dirge-like piece in which Tcherepnin gives us an almost continuous series of chords in but a few positions. Bass Paul Whelan has a fine voice but just lacks the Slavic touch; ditto the choir used here. This is the one song that sounds the most like Tchaikovsky to me. In “Lost Souls,” Tcherepnin switches tempo in the middle for a brief, intense flurry of notes; this is one of the most surprising songs in the series. Yet several of the songs after No. XVIII sound more Tchaikovskian than the earlier ones; I’m willing to bet that these were some of the 24 songs published by Heugel because they knew they would have a more ready market. The “regular” harmony of “With tormented spirit” is contrasted by the slightly ominous minor modes of the one and only piano solo in this cycle, a piece in which the regular rhythm is interrupted by jagged lines in the treble here and there, and this piece leads well into the pentatonic opening of “O angry idle voice.”

In toto, then, an extremely interesting album. Now if only a first-rate singer would record these songs (paging Karina Gauvin…paging Karina Gauvin!), this cycle would really be something.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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