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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

...By Any Name

Sergei Taneyev Trio in D Major, Op. 22 Alexander Tcherepnin Trio in D Major, Op. 34 The Odeon Trio On Pro Arte

By Robert F. Deitch

SERGEUS TANAJEFF's name is unfamiliar to most people. It might be that the name is used here merely as an impressive version of Sergei Taneyev; the former was the transcription used by Russian transliteraters at the turn of the century. Semantics aside, though, Tanajeff has not achieved the mastery of composition that his fellow Russians, like Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev, attained. Tanejeff (1856-1915) wrote a trio for violin, cello and piano that makes one wonder how he was able to take Tchaikovsky's old position as professor of instrumentation at the Moscow Conservatory when the old genius died. Certainly, the trio is no outstanding work. Any recording of his string quartets would make for better listening.

But history has it that Tchaikovsky taught Taneyev everything he knew (about composition). Nikolas Rubinstein, brother of the pianist extraordinaire of the nineteenth century but unrelated to Artur Rubinstein, taught him piano at the conservatory. The fledgling Taneyev also followed in Rubinstein's footsteps by taking over Nikolas's job when he passed away. Then he took over the Moscow Conservatory.

A comparison of the trio--which, unfortunately for Lenin, was published in 1908--with the Tchaikovsky piano concertos and piano trio will reveal striking similarities in form and style.

But the Pro Arte recording heralds good news: a highly original trio by Alexander Tcherepnin (1899-1977), also born in Russia and father of an associate professor of music and director of the electronic music program at Harvard. The piece lasts a mere five minutes but has enough zest to make up for the Tanayev (which isn't all that bad). In fact, Alexander Tcherepnin's father, Nikolai Tcherepnin, taught Prokofiev, although the trio was composed before Alexander had written his most mature works, stemming from his interest in the music of Japan and Shanghai in the 1930s.

The trio was based on a nine-note scale called--yes, the "Tcherepnin scale." This makes the music unique and exotic, but provides a basis for comprehension simpler in nature than, say, Ivan Tcherepnin's work. Ivan, whose Le Va et le Vient was premiered successfully two years ago by the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra, composes in a more abstract, atonal style, which may have been developed while he studied with Kirchner.

The beginning lines of the Tcherepnin recall the first theme of the second movement of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4--fluid and passionate. The notes move stepwise, with many minor seconds--the smallest interval between consecutive notes in Western music. After a short figure that resembles a melody from On the Waterfront, the music becomes faster with music reminiscent of the "Sword Dance" from the "Dance of the Young Kurds" in Khachaturian's Gayane Ballet (the same note repeated evenly for 15 times).

The performance by the Odeon Trio of the Tcherepnin (all members perform and teach in Germany) stands out most for its coordination, rhythmically and musically. The Pro Musica Trio has recorded the trio on Pro Musica Records, an unfamiliar name. Although the rhythms themselves might be inaccurate, as in the second movement, where the violin plays 13 and 15 notes in one beat in a rather difficult passage, the rest of the players come in at just the right time to insure cohesion. Although the first theme of the first and second movements is reiterated at the end of both in a Tempo di commincio, the end of the last section, Allegro risoluto, might have been considered abrupt if the performance lacked such unity.

In the Taneyev, the tone sounds tinny, possibly as a result of a poor pressing, but the timing compensates. An emphasis on timing is the most important characteristic of the 1980s, at least according to Mickey Rooney. For instance, it's time for "Mickey Rooney macarooney," he claims. In a similar vein, timing and tempo and rhythm can make up for poor intonation (what happens if you play out of tune), harshness of tone and lack of musical expressiveness, which occurs when performers forget to write their emotions in performance on flashcards to be held up by page turners when appropriate; the players can even draw a schematic, with, say, green representing jealousy. The expressiveness can be considered poor when the emotional response of the audience lies more than half a spectrum away. Timing is perfect in the second movement of Tanayev when the cello and violin echo one another, switching, however, for major (happy) to minor (sad). Then the Andante ("at a walking pace") espressivo begins, with major melodies blending into sterner, minor tunes at modulated keys. Taneyev might have been imagining anything about nature, the joy of life, or the prospect of low inflation in 1908. Whatever the case, the muscle of this Andante pulls the three other movements together centripetally.

The two pieces have qualities of the simple, clear French style. Taneyev visited Paris in 1877-78; Tcherepnin did the same in 1921 because of political troubles in Tibilisi, where he had moved. The Tcherepnin trio shows the influence of contemporary French composers like Darius Milhaud. But the trios resemble each other only insofar as Tcherepnin's father Nikolai was a pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov, who had been friends with Taneyev. It is unlikely, though, that Taneyev had a significant influence on Rimsky-Korsakov, who composed 'Flight of the Bumble Bee" (destined to become the theme song of The Green Hornet).

The music of Aram Il'yich Khachaturian (1903-1978) has Armenian and Middle Eastern elements. The second movement has long drones, eloquent turns. It approaches the inspired, improvised style of Arab and Indian performers. The infustion of folk elements won it the Stalin Prize (now called the State Prize) in 1941; but the continued development of Khachaturian's almost brash individuality caused him to be censured, along with Prokofiev and Shostakovich (Khachaturian's teacher), in 1948.

Wanda Wilkomirska gives a moving performance, heavy on vibrato (shaking a note to seduce one's boyfriend) and tone. She executes displaced accents, syncopation (extending a beat over the natural accent) and ricochet bowings with excellent technique.

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