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Sergei Ivanovich TANEYEV (1856-1915)
String Trio No. 1 in D major (1879-80) [25.17]
String Trio No. 2 in E flat Major Op. 31 (1910-11) [25.00]
String Trio No. 3 in B minor (1913) [17.10]
Leopold String Trio (Isabelle van Keulen (violin); Lawrence Power (viola); Kate Gould (cello))
rec. Potton Hall, Suffolk, 17-19 January 2008. DDD
HYPERION CDA67573 [67.29]
Experience Classicsonline

If for some reason you have not seen the heading of this review then I could play a little childhood game with you. Let’s try it anyway. ‘Guess who I am’. Of whom did Tchaikovsky speak when he said: “He is the greatest master of counterpoint”. Who was an expert, unique in Russia at the time, on Ockeghem, Lassus and other rare renaissance figures? Who wrote a book, which is still available, on ‘Invertible counterpoint’. Who became a pupil at the Moscow Conservatoire when he was nine? Who gave the first performances of all three Tchaikovsky piano concertos? Whose pupils included Medtner, Scriabin, Rachmaninov and Lyapunov, to name just four? Who died as a result of catching a chill at Scriabin’s funeral? Who was the first Russian composer to take the writing of string trios seriously? The answer is Sergei Taneyev. He has recently enjoyed something of a renaissance. We have seen the appearance on CD of his four symphonies and several of his ten string quartets. Up until now they have all eluded me but I may well try to discover more of his music as a result of this disc.
As a trainee composer myself back in the 1970s it was always made clear to me that the String Trio was an especially difficult medium. Nevertheless I did write one which worked out quite well. Taneyev wrote three or I should say two and a half because the B minor work consists only of two movements. The second movement was completed from sketches well after his death. This, almost his last composition, includes an impassioned and quite expressionist Allegro. As Calum MacDonald remarks in his excellent booklet notes this Allegro is “somewhat troubled”. It is followed by a delightful theme and seven variations. One of the reasons why the string trio, as a form, may be considered tricky is that counterpoint is more necessary to keep all three instruments occupied. There can be no hiding places for performer or composer. Listening to these Variations I was especially struck by the polyphonic web of the faster ones and the logicality of the lines. It is all very skilful and fascinating I am sure to play and indeed to hear.
I’ve started with this B minor Trio. It’s the one which most impressed me. The other two works, while not emotionally more striking, are longer and take up most of the CD space.
Taneyev was in his early 20s when he finished his un-opused D major Trio which Tchaikovsky saw and wrote an approving comment on its score. I suspect that what the great man liked was Taneyev’s counterpoint - all composers admire clever counterpoint. The first movement, which is generally quite classical, has a Bachian development section. The ensuing Scherzo with its Russian-type-dance Trio is an example of a ‘Scherzo in contrapunto all riversa’ or Scherzo in mirrored counterpoint. Its outer sections are, as Calum MacDonald says, “whimsical and delicately darting”. The Adagio ma non troppo is a very beautiful movement that I have played several times. It’s in a somewhat nostalgic mood. The Rondo finale has as one of its episodes a mini-fugue and likewise has a neatly contrapuntal coda.
The E flat Trio was originally composed for the now freakish combination of violin, viola and tenor viola (a sort of cello tuned a fourth higher). It shows us a consistency in Taneyev’s language and a development leading towards the B minor work mentioned above. The first movement has a distinct Mozartian classical quality. The second however is a fleeting scherzo which has a Russian tinge especially in its wintry middle section. The slow movement features a beautiful melody typical of the romantic period although Calum MacDonald says that its inspiration could be a Beethoven Quartet slow movement. The finale is a ‘raffish’ (MacDonald) Rondo which is a fugal episode. Romanticism and classical counterpoint are mixed into a very enjoyable pot. It was written however - although this seems surprising - practically on the eve of the 1st World War and is contemporary with ‘Le Sacre du Printemps’. The trio is only available by the way because Kate Gould the cellist has made suitable adaptations to make it playable for this more usual combination.
There is no doubt that this release has given us an insight into a genre which is unusual for its time and place. It also affords a further understanding of a composer only now being revealed by various companies and performers as a fine and underrated figure. Taneyev has a solid technique, a true sense of melody and an original turn of mind. We should be grateful to the Leopold String Trio not only for their advocacy of these pieces but also for their dedication and high musical commitment. They should be highly commended. Their brilliant, beautifully paced and sensitively conceived performances matched their work on Dohnányi and Schubert (Hyperion). In the knowledge that the group have a wide repertoire it will be fascinating to see where their quest for new challenges leads them next. All in all a fine release.
Gary Higginson


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