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Sergey Ivanovich TANEYEV (1856–1915)
Complete String Quartets: Vol. 1

Quartet No. 1 in B flat minor, Op. 4 (1890) [34:29]
Quartet No. 3 in D minor, Op. 7 (1886, rev. 1896) [26:54]
Carpe Diem String Quartet
rec. May 2006, Mees Hall, Capital University, Columbus, Ohio, USA. DDD
NAXOS 8.570437 [61:39]

Naxos continues to provide a tremendous service to international chamber music with an extensive variety of recordings. This year there have been several valuable Naxos sets that I have especially enjoyed: the string quartets of Schumann, Glazunov’s five novelettes and string quintet from the Fine Arts, Malcolm Arnold’s works for string quartet from the Maggini and his wind chamber music from East Winds not to mention three volumes of Arnold Bax’s violin and viola music.

Comprising members of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, the Carpe Diem are quartet-in-residence at the Conservatory of Music at Capital University. This disc is first volume of a projected complete cycle from the Carpe Diem of the Taneyev quartets.

In 1866 Russian-born Sergey Taneyev entered the Moscow Conservatory and later became a composition student of Tchaikovsky. He also received piano tuition from Nikolay Rubinstein and graduated with a gold medal for performance and composition. As a virtuoso pianist he was entrusted by Tchaikovsky with the premières of virtually all his scores for piano and orchestra. It seems that Taneyev was the only composer from his circle from whom Tchaikovsky sought critical appraisals of his scores. In 1881 he returned to the Moscow Conservatory to undertake teaching duties and in 1885 was appointed as Conservatory Director. 

Kept in the shadows for many years his music is rapidly gaining a large group of enthusiasts. Taneyev champion, the eminent Russian pianist; conductor and composer Mikhail Pletnev, interviewed for The Independent in 2005, expressed the opinion that Taneyev was, “…the key figure in Russian musical history… He was the greatest polyphonist after Bach. And look who his pupils were: Rachmaninov and Scriabin, and Prokofiev who said he learned more about composing in one hour from Taneyev than from all his other tutors at the Moscow Conservatory.”

Taneyev is best remembered today as the composer of four symphonies and his second cantata At the Reading of a Psalm (1914-15). The cantata was his final work, completed just two years before the Russian Revolution, and is receiving significant advocacy from Pletnev. Very active in the field of chamber music, Taneyev composed over twenty scores in the genre, including, according to Grove Music Online nine string quartets between 1874-1911, plus two incomplete quartets; two string quintets (1901 and 1904); a piano quartet (1906) and a piano quintet (1911).

I can highly recommend a superb version of the Piano Quintet, Op. 30 (1911) and Piano Trio, Op. 22 from a stellar cast: Vadim Repin (violin), Ilya Gringolts (violin), Nobuko Imai (viola), Lynn Harrell (cello) and Mikhail Pletnev (piano). This was recorded in Vevey, Switzerland in 2003 and issued on Deutsche Grammophon 477 5419. Another Taneyev release to receive considerable acclaim is the live 2003 St. Petersburg, Russia recording of At the Reading of a Psalm. This is conducted by Pletnev and performed by the Russian National Orchestra, the St. Petersburg State Academy Capella Choir, the Boys Choir of the Glinka Choral College and soloists on PentaTone Classics Super Audio CD PTC 5186 038.

Taneyev’s wrote his five movement Quartet No. 1 in 1890, the year after resigning as Conservatory Director to concentrate more fully on his composing and counterpoint teaching. It seems that the score was actually Taneyev’s fifth string quartet but the first to be accorded an opus number.

In the extended opening movement Andante espressivo the Carpe Diems emphasise the dramatic, dark and restless aspects with the writing showing only brief glimpses of beauty. The lengthy Largo is mournful and affecting. This is not love music but more evocative of heartbreaking pain and sadness after the death of someone close. In the short, agitated and nervy Presto the music scampers from corner to corner. One welcomes a mood change in the Intermezzo which has a wistful and restful quality with not a care in the world. I especially enjoyed the high spirited and good natured playing in the fifth and concluding movement. 

The Quartet No. 3 was written in 1886 and underwent revision in 1896; a time that marked the recent blossoming of Taneyev’s friendship with the eminent writer Leo Tolstoy. The score is cast in two movements with the huge final movement being a theme and eight variations. Lasting over seventeen minutes in performance the closing movement must be one of the longest in the genre of late-Romantic quartets.

Played with considerable assurance, the first movement Allegro has an unsettling and uncertain quality with fascinating writing that meanders from one idea to another. In the second movement Taneyev has selected a light and attractive Mozartean theme. I have attempted to identify each variation commencing from point 1:01 where a broken love affair must surely have been the motivation for the sorrowful first variation. The serious and melodic second variation follows at 2:57 and from 4:14 the players impress with the hectic and robust quality of the third variation. The fourth at 5:13 has the character of a folk dance; from 6:16 variation five is interpreted with tense undercurrents of sorrow through the general good humour. The brisk and rhythmic sixth variation at 9:17 contains an abundance of pizzicato. At 11:31 the slow and gentle variation seven offers a memorable and heartbreaking melody. In the dark and rich eighth and final variation at 14:49 the low strings dominate with confident and urgent playing. 

The engineers are to be congratulated for the excellent sound quality. I found the booklet notes, comprising two short essays, to be adequate but the playing time of just over one hour seems ungenerous.

With assured playing and impressive unity from the Carpe Diem the disc is a valuable addition to Taneyev’s expanding discography. For those new to the rewarding and accessible sound-world of Taneyev this makes an excellent and inexpensive introduction to his chamber music.

Michael Cookson




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