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Nikolay TCHEREPNIN (1873-1945)
Le Pavillon d’Armide (1906)
Moscow Symphony Orchestra/Henry Shek
rec. Mosfilm Studio, Moscow, November 1994
NAXOS 8.573657 [67.02]

Those of us who were raised in the tradition of the cataclysmic theory of evolution in the history of late romantic music, where musical progression was measured by the appearance of iconoclastic scores such as Tristan und Isolde or Prélude à l’après-midi d’une faune, have long been vouchsafed a more nuanced view of such pieces by the discovery of works by contemporary composers which in many ways anticipated the innovations of Wagner and Debussy, if not their synthesis and fusion of the various elements involved. That the startling novelty of Stravinsky’s three great Diaghilev ballets – The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring – seems to have been more revolutionary not only in combination but also in individual passages was to a certain extent the result of the fact that listeners were generally not so well aware of the work of Stravinsky’s immediate predecessors in Russia, although the influences of Liadov’s Kikimora, Schmitt’s La Tragédie du Salomé and (most startling of all) Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mlada on scores such as The Firebird were not far to seek. Only The Rite of Spring seemed to be totally without antecedents even in Stravinsky’s own music, unless one counts the mysterious work of Ernest Fanelli – whose remarkable score Symphonic Pictures the composer claimed in conversation with Pierné had been written forty years before, but which did not see the light of day until after Pierné had already conducted The Firebird. It was the Marco Polo label under the baton of the enterprising Adriano who unearthed Fanelli’s music, and it was the same label who back in October 1995 issued as their ‘record of the month’ this ‘complete recording’ of Tcherepnin’s full-length ballet La pavillon d’Armide, the first of the Diaghilev ballets to be given by his company in Paris in 1909. Apart from a suite from the ballet conducted by Victor Fedotov, once available on Melodiya (and other labels) in rather garish sound, this Marco Polo release – now refurbished for Naxos – remains the sole representation of the score in the catalogues. So, does it shed light on the origins of Stravinsky’s style, and show us where he came from?

Well, in fact there is only one point in Tcherepnin’s score where we are given the slightest inkling that The Rite of Spring lay just around the corner: a passage of some ten bars at the end of a Bacchanal movement (track 10), where the reiteration of a single violent chord presages the worship of the ancestors in the later work. Even here the trademark erratic rhythms of Stravinsky are missing, and for the remainder of the ballet Tcherepnin is apparently content to work within the stylistic bounds set by Rimsky, Tchaikovsky and Liadov. There are passages, such as the appearance of Armida (track 4), which clearly owe much to the example of Mlada; and another section featuring solo celesta (track 7) demonstrates rather too close an affinity with the example of The Nutcracker. Indeed the plot itself has elements in common with the ramshackle scenario of Tchaikovsky’s ballet. A French count staying at a strange chateau is lured during the night into a tapestry depicting a scene from the court of mediaeval enchantress Armida. He is there presented with an extensive danced divertissement (like Tchaikovsky’s Kingdom of Sweets), and finds when he seemingly awakens from his dream the following morning that he has retained the scarf with which Armida had presented him. At least that is the plot as originally outlined by Albert Benois, and as it appears to have been staged in Paris – at least if the reminiscence of Jean Cocteau is to be credited, where he talks of the dream-like fantasy of the action. But in this recording the music comes to an end at the conclusion of the divertissement, a disappointingly conventional Grande Valse in the style of Tchaikovsky (track 15); and Keith Anderson in his booklet note suggests that the music for the remainder of the ballet as given “in the theatre” is here omitted. (The scores available on ISMLP are restricted to the nine numbers which constitute the suite.) It appears that the original choreography as presented in Paris is missing, and recent revivals have employed various rival ‘reconstructions’ of the ballet; that for the Hamburg Ballet is described as 65 minutes in duration. However, a review of the original Paris production in 1909 clearly refers to a “Scene Three” which it describes as an “unusual pantomime” – and this is equally clearly not the ending with which we are presented in this supposedly complete recording.

All of which is rather a pity, since what we are given here – once we cease to condemn the score for not being what it might have been – is really very enjoyable. None of the music is quite up to the standards of the great Tchaikovsky ballets, but much of it is highly proficient and there are elements of real poetry which transcend the rather basic scenario; an adagio just after the arrival of Armida has real emotional weight, and there is a following Pas d’action (track 5) which packs a thoroughly melodramatic punch and might have been even more effective if we knew what it was supposed to be portraying. The playing of the orchestra under Henry Shek is excellent, and the recorded sound is not at all bad either – a definite improvement on the Melodiya recording of the suite. Those who like the ballets of Glazunov will find much to enjoy here. One might indeed wish for a new recording of the score, possibly restoring the final scene (if indeed the music still exists), but for the present this Naxos reissue, complete with the original booklet notes, is most welcome. Tcherepnin’s other music deserves more than its current neglect, too.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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