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Sergei TANEYEV (1856-1915)
Complete String Quartets – Vol. 1
String Quartets: No. 1 in B flat minor, Op. 4 (1890) [34:29]; No. 3 in D minor, Op. 7 (1886, rev. 1896) [26:54]
Carpe Diem String Quartet
rec. Mees Hall, Capital University Columbus, Ohio, 22-23 May 2006. DDD
NAXOS 8.570437 [61:39]
Experience Classicsonline

A fascinating disc. The music of Sergei Taneyev is fully worthy of investigation. A reputation for academicism has dogged this composer so that over time his works have been completely overshadowed. He is much better known for being the teacher of Rachmaninov and Scriabin than for any works of his own. Yet Mikhail Pletnev, no less, has championed Taneyev's cantata John of Damascus - a stunning performance, coupling it with Rachmaninov's The Bells: see review).

The American Carpe Diem Quartet plays with a burnished tone that is entirely appropriate for this music. The first quartet we hear, although indicated as No. 1, was in fact Taneyev's Fifth. It is cast in five movements, meaning that the short, central Presto acts as something of a structural pivot. The first movement is an Andante espressivo, exploratory in nature and containing moments of great stillness. The musical language seems remarkably close to Tchaikovsky's melancholy. The first slow movement, a Largo, is more pronouncedly Brahmsian in utterance, its slow-moving lyricism given full justice by the players’ burnished sound. If there is a hint of a Beethoven scherzo to the Presto - I think of Op. 130 - the mode of utterance nevertheless remains identifiably Russian at heart. The hesitancy of the first part of the Intermezzo (marked Andantino) is most affecting, especially when played in these hushed, almost reverential tones. The musical material makes reference to the popular Russian song, Dark Eyes. The finale scampers playfully, meaning the witty final gesture makes perfect sense. There is an alternative version of this quartet available – the Taneyev Quartet on the Northern Flowers label, coupled with the Fourth Quartet  but I have yet to hear this.

The Third Quartet comprises only two movements. The sombre first movement is the shortest (at 9:19). Unfortunately I have not had access to the score - it would be interesting to see the notation - for despite the tempo indication of Allegro, this could pass muster for a slow movement in almost all contexts. The second movement is a Theme and Variations. Booklet annotator Dina Lentsner is right to identify a Mozartian element in the lightness and grace of the theme, given out here with delicious charm.  The Carpe Diem Quartet evidently takes great pleasure in Taneyev's set of variations, particularly the more virtuoso parts.

The fact this is billed as Volume 1 is cause for some enthusiastic celebration. Naxos can sometimes leave long gaps between volumes; the continuing series of Tchaikovsky songs is testament to this habit. Let us hope Volume 2 follows on swiftly.

Colin Clarke

see also Reviews by Jonathan Woolf and Michael Cookson



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