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Sergey Ivanovich TANEYEV (1856-1915)
Symphony No. 3 in D minor (1884) [42:05]
Symphony No. 1 in E minor (1874) [33:45]
Novosibirsk Academic Symphony Orchestra/Thomas Sanderling
rec. 10-14 September 2006, Studio of West Siberian Radio, Novosibirsk, Russia
NAXOS 8.570336 [75:51]
Experience Classicsonline

For all its cordiality Taneyev’s relationship with Tchaikovsky – first as a pupil then as a friend – must have been difficult at times. For instance the older composer’s comments appear to have put the brakes on Taneyev’s Symphony No. 2. That said the critical and creative dialogue flowed both ways; indeed, Taneyev was inclined to be blunt, so much so that Tchaikovsky often dreaded the younger man’s opinions and suggestions. Taneyev was certainly multi-talented, the first student in the history of the Moscow Conservatory to win the gold medal for both composition and performance.

Given their close and continuing friendship it’s no surprise that Taneyev’s early orchestral efforts owe much to Tchaikovsky’s model. That is certainly true of his Symphony No. 1, which was written in response to his mentor’s ‘Little Russian’ symphony of 1873.

Curiously Naxos have reversed the order of the symphonies on this disc but I will deal with the earlier work first. The opening Allegro has a Tchaikovskian expansiveness, with a strong pulse and sense of inner tension. For all that there is an almost foursquare feel to the music, which majors in seriousness rather than brilliance. The playing of the Russian band – the first time I have heard them – seems idiomatic enough, although the strings sound undernourished at times. Unfortunately the acoustic is rather dry and perspectives are flattened, with little or no reverberation.

For the most part Thomas Sanderling – son of the illustrious Kurt – steers the ship past potential hazards, although he does come close to the doldrums in the central section of the Allegro, before finding a favourable wind at the majestic close. Having finally got under way Sanderling settles for a gentle breeze in the Andantino, quasi allegretto. There is a contrasting lightness here, both in terms of texture and rhythm; in fact this is as genial and relaxed as the music is likely to get, the strings now sounding wonderfully poised in the pizzicato passages and suitably passionate in the surging tunes.

There’s another change of tack in the Scherzo: Vivace assai, which has a new found momentum in those repeated figures for strings bolstered by crisp playing from the timps. The repeated motif that runs through the movement like an idée fixe is most effective. And just listen to how Taneyev makes the music dance at 1:04 and 4:19. This is certainly some of his most individual and spontaneous writing so far.

Sanderling unfurls all his sails in the Finale: Allegro molto. There is a sweep to the music, not to mention a Dvořákian sense of anticipation as land hoves into view. Fortunately there is little bluster to impede the vessel’s progress, although the strings are inclined to coarseness under full sail. The final moments are strongly reminiscent of Tchaikovsky at his balletic best, with a wonderful mix of ardour and excitement. What a thrilling conclusion to a thoroughly entertaining work.

By contrast Symphony No. 3 is an altogether weightier, more tightly argued piece. Textures are certainly more Brahmsian but there are moments when the music hints at Brucknerian nobility. It’s just a hint, though, with none of the latter’s vaulting, architectonic writing; on the contrary, Taneyev is much more contained and formal, achieving a certain solidity of style.

Only 10 years separate these works, yet from the opening of the Allegro con spirito it’s clear Taneyev has begun to cultivate a symphonic style more of his own. Even so the Brucknerian echoes I alluded to earlier can be heard in the string section beginning at 0:50. For the rest there is a rhythmic tautness and rather more subtle instrumental colouring than before, yet still the symphony retains that sense of classical proportion. This is not heart-on-sleeve Romanticism; indeed, the soubriquet ‘the Russian Brahms’ is most appropriate at this point.

Despite its structural integrity this movement is not without its longueurs. Thankfully the fleet-footed Scherzo – moved up to second place in the symphony – offers some respite. I found this music vaguely Mendelssohnian at times, with some noble brass writing to its credit. That said Taneyev is not given to lavish gestures, which is frustrating if, like me, you long for a little more unpredictability. Clearly that isn’t his way, and I suspect Brahms aficionados will appreciate that more than most.

The Intermezzo boasts some of Taneyev’s most delicate scoring. There is a pleasing mix of elegance and inwardness that is certainly more Romantic in feeling, but that sense of containment remains intact. What a contrast the contrapuntal brilliance of the Finale makes, though. Frustratingly Taneyev keeps a tight rein on his emotions but at least he never allows the music to become overblown or rhetorical. The Novosibirsk band inject plenty of brio into the bright Allegro, although a warmer acoustic would have given the sound a bit more glow in the tuttis.

Although it’s clearly derivative Taneyev’s Symphony No. 1 strikes me as the more extrovert of the two. That may have more to do with my own ambivalence towards Brahms, whose shade haunts the Third from beginning to end. For what it’s worth these symphonies are not in the same league as, say, those of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov; for all his skill Taneyev surely belongs somewhere below Glière and Glazunov on the list of 19th-century Russian symphonists.

So a worthy issue, if not a particularly inspired one. The playing and conducting are perfectly adequate but it would be idle to pretend this is great music. Solid is a word that crops up in my notes more than once, and that is as honest a description of these symphonies as any.

Dan Morgan


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