Sergei TANEYEV (1856-1915)
Cantata: John of Damascus (Ioann Damaskin), Op. 1a (1884) [26:10].
Suite de Concert, Op. 28b (1909) [46:05].
aGnesin Academy Chorus; bIlya Kaler (violin); Russian Philharmonic Orchestra/Thomas Sanderling.
rec. Studio 5, Russian State Radio & TV Company KULTURA, Moscow, Russia, 2-6 May and 13 September 2007. DDD
NAXOS 8.570527 [72:15]

Mikhail Pletnev’s DG recording of John of Damascus - recorded in 2000 - was a major step forward in the raising of Taneyev into the public’s consciousness. It was reviewed here on MusicWeb by Ian Lace - you can find my comments on the website. Although this was Taneyev’s official Opus One, these are some forty other works that precede it. The cantata is dedicated to the memory of Nikolai Rubinstein and is a meaty, heartfelt response to words by Alexei Tolstoy. Melodic material is often chant-based: specifically, the 1772 version of “Rest with the Holy Ones”. Pletnev’s recording team was excellent, and there is real presence to his recording. Pianissimi are spellbindingly rendered; fortissimi blaze. His chorus, the Russian State Chamber Choir, is magnificent, particularly in the quieter moments.

The Naxos recording is up-front, but the Russian Philharmonic’s strings lack the depth of tone of Pletnev’s ensemble. Pletnev is routinely faster than Sanderling, too: Pletnev’s three movements are 13:03, 2:41 and 7:04 as against Sanderling’s 14:59, 3:01 and 8:10. As the Naxos first movement (Adagio non troppo) proceeds, however, a more deeply felt interpretation begins to take shape, itself scuppered later by a lack of clarity of texture. That said, the lustiness of the choral singing of the final movement’s vigorous fugue almost makes up for previous failings. Almost. Taneyev’s John of Damascus can make real emotional impact, as Pletnev proves; Sanderling provides a recording of a curio.  

Pletnev’s coupling (Rachmaninov The Bells) is very satisfying; it is actually the other way around - the Taneyev is the ‘filler’. Here on Naxos, it is the Suite de Concert, a rather popular work - there are at least five alternatives, including several by David Oistrakh. This was Taneyev’s first work for violin and orchestra. It is given here in a performance of undeniable eloquence by Ilya Kaler. The Prelude is of some substance: 8:14 in duration. Taneyev’s inspiration never wavers. There follows a selection of dances (Gavotte and the final Tarantella) along with a Theme and Variations and a “Märchen” (Fairy Tale). At 9:14, the Fairy Tale is the longest movement. It is pure magic in its scoring, and Kaler’s way with the high writing is most captivating. Fugal form is in evidence - this time a brief (2:08) double fugue. But it is moments like the sweet lyricism that surfaces in the work’s final minutes that are truly memorable. The final Tarantella has real grit.

Anastasia Belina’s excellent liner-notes make tantalising reference to Taneyev’s opera, Oresteia of 1894. One can dream … perhaps just a reissue of the Melodiya recording of 1978? - with orchestra and chorus of the Belorussian State Opera conducted by Tatiana Kolomizheva. The Melodiya was once available on Olympia OCD195/A/B.

An interesting introduction, perhaps, to Taneyev, but both pieces are better served elsewhere.

Colin Clarke