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

It’s not just that Taneyev’s Quartets are among his strongest works – they’re stylistically intriguing as well. There’s a vein of proto-modernity about them that keeps one constantly alive as to his harmonic directions. And the broad span of the Op. 4 quartet – written in five movements – allows for considerable variety. Though it carries an early opus number Taneyev was in his mid-thirties when he wrote it so it’s hardly a child of his youth.
It’s a strongly argued work, long on expressive gestures. It opens with a long Andante espressivo, moves on to a Largo and just as one thinks that Slavic gloom couldn’t get gloomier, at least in superficial form - it’s not actually a gloomy work - we confront a brisk Presto. Then another slow-ish movement, an Intermezzo, and finally a vivacious and decidedly giocoso conclusion. The highlight of the five-movement Quartet is the Andante, a tremendously warm affair whose gestures are never superficial or generic. If there is a fault, and I think this is Taneyev’s responsibility more than that of his interpreters, it’s that the thickness of the writing – that old line about Taneyev being Brahmsian in his scoring – can lead to a rather clotted, ultimately unfocused sense of direction. After the depth of expression here the quartet lightens and brightens incrementally; the finale is certainly delightful but it’s not as distinctive as the first two movements in particular.
The Third Quartet was completed six years later. It’s in two movements, the first a standard Allegro and the second a Theme and Variations. This is another work that advances the Russian quartet stylistically beyond Tchaikovskian models. And in this work it’s the very extensive second movement, all seventeen and a half minutes of it, that bears the biggest weight in this respect. The dainty classical theme is a prelude for an array of multi-variegated variations – which run from the obviously folkloric, to intimations of Borodin, echoes of Tchaikovsky, a beautiful, indeed ravishing, lied and the slow, gentle relapse into repose and quietude. It took some daring to construct so big a movement and equally so to end it so reflectively.
The Carpe Diem String Quartet plays with firmness and commitment. They can phrase very plaintively but sometimes their corporate sonority comes across as rather brittle. That said I quite took to the husky-toned violist Korine Fujiwara. One thing that I think needs to be investigated further is how a quartet of expressive tonalists would handle some of the more clotted writing; here things do sound a touch unfocused from time to time, and the First Quartet in particular could do with a greater delineation of voicings to alleviate mushy writing. Otherwise a welcome offering that shows Taneyev in emphatic and questing compositional form.
Jonathan Woolf 

see also review by Michael Cookson


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