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Nikolay Andreyevich RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Fantasy on Russian Themes for violin and orchestra, Op. 33 (1887) [17:28]
Sergey Ivanovich TANEYEV (1856–1915)
Suite de Concert for violin and orchestra, Op. 28 (1908-09) [47:13]
Lydia Mordkovitch (violin)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
rec. July-August 2008, Théâtre de Vevey, Switzerland. DDD
CHANDOS CHAN10491 [64:53]


Experience Classicsonline

This disc offers works for violin and orchestra from Russian contemporaries and friends Rimsky-Korsakov and Taneyev. Described here as ‘Violin Concertos’ the first score is Rimsky-Korsakov’s Fantasy on Russian Themes based on old Russian folk-tunes. Taneyev is represented by his Suite de Concert a work that inhabits the world of old European dance forms from the baroque period. These are both unfamiliar scores, yet melodic and rewarding, without making any claims to greatness. For further listening I have provided in the footnotes a list of several other lesser known scores by these composers.

I immediately noted the link that both Rimsky and Taneyev had been composition professors at their respective conservatories: the former at the St. Petersburg and Taneyev at Moscow. Stylistically very different in inclination the Moscow Conservatory was more associated with the music of the Austro-German tradition as opposed to the Russian nationalist school at St. Petersburg.

The first born of the two composers is Rimsky who is by far the better known; primarily for his famous symphonic suite Scheherazade, Op. 36 (1888) and also the popular Capriccio espagnol, Op. 34 (1887).

Rimsky started his career as a naval officer and went on to become Professor of Composition at St. Petersburg. He taught many pupils who went on to achieve great success as composers, notably: Anatoly Lyadov; Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov; Anton Arensky; Sergei Prokofiev; Alexander Gretchaninov; Igor Stravinsky, Ottorino Respighi and Alexander Glazunov.

Rimsky-Korsakov was the youngest of the circle of self trained amateur composers known as ‘The Five’ also known as ‘The Mighty Handful’ or ‘Balakirev's circle’. They met in the years 1856-1870 and promoted a Russian Nationalistic style. Commenced in 1861 Rimsky-Korsakov’s Symphony No. 1 in E flat minor, Op. 1 was completed and premiered at St. Petersburg in 1865. The composer surprised the audience by taking his ovation wearing his naval uniform. Although it was not the first symphony to be composed by a Russian the score is sometimes known as the “First Russian Symphony”; owing to its use of Russian folk song and oriental melodies. Rimsky-Korsakov revised and re-orchestrated the Symphony No. 1 in 1884.

Rimsky-Korsakov composed his three movement Fantasy on Russian Themes in 1887. It was written for Krasnokutsky the violin teacher at the Imperial Chapel where Rimsky was assistant to Balakirev, the Musical Director. Biographer Gerald Abraham wrote of the Violin Fantasy:

Though the themes are attractive, their treatment is of slight interest, the orchestral part being very evidently written for the pupil’s orchestra of the Chapel.” (Rimsky-Korsakov: A Short Biography by Gerald Abraham, Duckworth, London, 1945, p. 80). 

The opening movement is wild and fresh, punctuated with cadenza-like passages. Mordkovitch plays with great tenderness against a minimal orchestral accompaniment. The Lento section includes a long, languid and heartfelt theme. From point 2:03 Rimsky-Korsakov employs the highest violin registers. Like a breath of fresh air the Finale bursts onto the scene blowing away any cobwebs with a brisk gypsy-dance. A cadenza of considerable difficulty is played with assurance by Mordkovitch and conveys an unusually warm and gentle atmosphere.

It was in 1866 that Sergey Taneyev entered the Moscow Conservatory. He became a composition student of Tchaikovsky and also received piano tuition from Nikolay Rubinstein. He graduated with a gold medal for performance and composition. As a virtuoso Taneyev was entrusted by Tchaikovsky with giving the premières of virtually all his scores for piano and orchestra. Taneyev was the only composer within his circle from whom Tchaikovsky sought critical appraisals on his works. Later in his career in 1881 Taneyev returned to the Moscow Conservatory to undertake teaching duties and in 1885 was appointed as Conservatory Director. Taneyev’s pupils include several famous names namely: Reinhold Glière; Sergei Rachmaninov and Alexander Scriabin.

Sadly Taneyev’s music has been consigned to the shadows for many years. His influence on the development of Russian music, especially his success as a composition teacher, is often overlooked. Thankfully Taneyev’s melodic and approachable music is rapidly gaining a large group of enthusiasts. In an interview for The Independent newspaper in 2005 the eminent Russian pianist; conductor and composer Mikhail Pletnev 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.”

Today Taneyev is best remembered as the composer of four symphonies. His final work, the second cantata At the Reading of a Psalm (1914-15) completed just two years before the Russian Revolution, is receiving attention thanks to maestro Pletnev’s recording on Pentatone. Very active in the field of chamber music Taneyev composed a considerable number of scores in the genre. According to Grove Music Online there are nine string quartets (1874-1911), plus two incomplete quartets; two string quintets (1901 and 1904); a piano quartet (1906) and a piano quintet (1911).

His substantial forty-seven minute Suite de Concert was composed in 1908-9 in between the turmoil of the ‘Failed Russian Revolution of 1905’ and the ‘Bolshevik Revolution’ or ‘October Revolution’ of 1917.

Dedicated to his friend the renowned violinist Leopold Auer the score is a combination of several traditions of writing. The Prelude and Gavotte sections reflect the style of the Baroque suite with the closing Tarantella conceivably indicating the Gigue. The substantial and late-Romantic Fairy-tale section undoubtedly reminds one of Schumann or Brahms. One wonders if the theme and set of variations were influenced by Brahms’s Haydn Variations (1873) or Tchaikovsky’s Mozartiana, orchestral suite, Op. 61 (1887).

In the Prelude I enjoyed the exciting and extrovert opening section. It calls for and receives considerable virtuosity from soloist Lydia Mordkovitch. The overall sound-picture is one of brooding sultriness. From the scope of an eighteen century Gavotte the music develops a distinct late-Romantic feel. The Fairy-tale section, an Andantino, commences in a quite sinister, almost menacing mood. This is music evocative of a woodland scene at dusk with all sorts of extraordinary creatures revealing themselves. The main theme that Rimsky-Korsakov employs is attractive yet undemanding. The first variation is delightful, contrasting with the bold and assertive second variation and the elegant waltz third variation. Marked Fuga doppia the fourth variation consists of richly-textured writing. The lighter fifth variation feels bright and breezy. Variation six is a severe mazurka and I loved the heartfelt compassion of the final variation that closely resembles the original theme. The Finale of the score, a tarantella, provides predominantly foot-tapping excitement. The climax makes a thrilling and satisfying conclusion to this impressive work. 

I found this to be a splendidly presented disc with Calum MacDonald’s essay in the booklet a model of authorship. I did notice that in the liner-notes and booklet Taneyev’s birth date is incorrectly given as 1889 not 1856.

Michael Cookson

Recommended Recordings of Less Familiar Scores:


For those looking for lesser known scores of high quality and although not noted for his compositions in the field of chamber music I can enthusiastically recommend the following two scores:

The Quintet for piano, flute, clarinet, horn and bassoon in B flat, Op. posth. (1876). I love the fresh and committed playing by pianist Felicja Blumental and members of the New Philharmonia Wind Ensemble, London. The work was recorded at Chelsea, London in 1979 on Brana Records BR0019 c/w Anton Rubinstein Quintet for piano, flute, clarinet, horn and bassoon, in F major, Op. 55 (1855). 

The rare String Sextet in A major, Op. posth. (1876) is an undemanding yet highly attractive early score worthy of wider recognition. Played with freshness and genuine enthusiasm by the Kocian Quartet with Josepf Kluson (viola) and Michal Kanka (cello) on Praga Records PRD350039 c/w Quintet for Piano and Winds, Op. posth. (1876). 


I can highly recommend a splendid version of the Piano Quintet, Op. 30 (1911) and Piano Trio, Op. 22 from the stellar cast of: Vadim Repin (violin); Ilya Gringolts (violin); Nobuko Imai (viola); Lynn Harrell (cello) and Mikhail Pletnev (piano) recorded in Vevey, Switzerland in 2003 on Deutsche Grammophon 4775419.

Another Taneyev release to receive considerable acclaim is the live 2003 St. Petersburg, Russia recording of At the Reading of a Psalm. Conducted by Mikhail 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 PTC5186038. 

A valuable addition to Taneyev’s expanding discography is a recording of the  String Quartet No. 1 in B flat minor, Op. 4 (1890) and String Quartet No. 3 in D minor, Op. 7 (1886, rev.1896). Recorded in Columbus, Ohio in 2006 I especially enjoyed the assured playing and impressive unity from the Carpe Diem String Quartet on Naxos 8.570437. This first volume for Naxos as part of a projected cycle from the Carpe Diems Quartet of Taneyev’s complete quartets.




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