Alexander Tcherepnin My Flowering Staff (1912-13)
Inna Dukach (soprano), Tatyana Kebuladze (piano), with Paul Whelan (bass) Acmeist Male Choir
Toccata Classics TOCC0537 [57’55”] Russian (Cyrillic) text and translation included
Producer/Engineer Jeremy Gerard
Recorded 21-23 June 2017, 29 December 2018 and 4 January 2019 at the Gurari Studios, National Opera Center, New York City
Written by Richard Whitehouse
What’s the story?
Toccata Classics comes up with another first in My Flowering Staff, a song-cycle of almost an hour’s length by Alexander Tcherepnin (1899-1977), most of whose content was divided across three separate collections and has only now been returned to its original conception.
What’s the music like?
His reputation established initially through his piano music (a representative selection from which, including several archival recordings by the composer, can be found on TOCC0079), Tcherepnin worked intensively on setting this volume of lyrics by Sergei Gorodetsky (1884-1967) during 1920-21, before he summarily abandoned the project with three texts awaiting music. Instead, he published 24 of these songs – albeit to French translation – as his Opp. 15, 16 and 17, then never returned to the song format on such a scale. The other songs remained unheard until 2018, by which time the original Russian texts of the published items had been restored and the undeniable ambition of Tcherepnin’s vision could be more readily adduced.
Not that adducing such a vision is therefore straightforward. Gorodetsky may have reined-in his more abstruse symbolism when he penned these 38 lyrics during 1912-13, but a tendency towards inward communing is seldom far away and it could be precisely this obscurity which attracted Tcherepnin in the first instance; enabling him to align his own preoccupations with the passage from youth to maturity, and from innocence to experience, with the poet’s own ruminations. Anyone expecting a continuity of narrative akin to the song-cycles of Schubert will only be disappointed, yet the fervency of Tcherepnin’s approach is its own justification.
Stylistically, too, these songs exude those attributes of inward ecstasy and ominous anxiety as Tcherepnin’s older contemporaries had previously found in this poet. Vocal lines tend toward the declamatory and have recourse to a wide compass, while the piano writing is harmonically questing without becoming congested or unidiomatic (hence the imposing solo that precedes the 22nd poem) – a consequence of his mastery over this instrument whether as composer or performer. The expressive ambit is opened-out with a setting of the 16th poem for bass and (optional) male chorus, while the overall cycle is framed by an Epigraph and Epilogue which distil those qualities of yearning and fulfilment that dominate the cycle as a whole. Whether Tcherepnin thought its execution to have fallen short of its ambition cannot now be answered.
Does it all work?
Almost, though it is not always easy to perceive the formal trajectory Tcherepnin was intent on pursuing or to what expressive end it was directed. That said, the omitted songs are quite the equal of those he did publish and to hear them all in sequence affords its own fascination. It helps when Inna Dukach renders the overall cycle with just the right alternation of plangent rhetoric or confiding intimacy and receives astute accompaniment from Tatyana Kebuladze. Nor are Paul Whelan and Acmeist Male Choir found wanting in their solitary contribution.
Is it recommended?
Yes, given the conviction of this performance and excellence of recorded sound. Benjamin Folkman’s detailed annotations go a long way to elucidating Tcherepnin’s conception, while Dina Dukach’s English translation similarly clarifies many aspects of Gorodetsky’s musings.
You can discover more about this release at the Toccata Classics website, where you can also purchase the recording.