Taneyev’s Sixth and Ninth Quartets offer a taste of every aspect of the composer’s art: a deep affinity with generic traditions, a mastery of tightly argued musical form and a facility for counterpoint that always (here anyway) avoids academic dryness. Between them, they are probably the most technically accomplished of his quartets, but they are not his most distinctive. There is little structural innovation in either work, both are straight down the line four-movement structures. He keeps the folksy Russian colouring to a minimum as well, only veering towards the rustic in the Gigue third movement of the Sixth, but even here the overriding impression is of cosmopolitan sophistication.
As with volume 3 of this edition, volume 4 presents a mature work, the Sixth, coupled with earlier essay in the form, the Ninth. Of the three unpublished (at least initially unpublished) quartets - numbers 7, 8 and 9 - the Ninth is by far the most impressive. One of its early admirers was Tchaikovsky, whose approving annotations adorn the autograph score. It doesn’t have the complexity of Taneyev’s later music, and little of the contrapuntal complexity, but its lyrical melodic profile makes for satisfying listening. Taneyev’s obsession with formal balance shines through here, as is demonstrated by the remarkable fact that each of the four movements is almost exactly the same length. In some ways it feels like music of an earlier era, especially in comparison with Tchaikovsky’s contemporaneous quartets. It has the lyrical sensibility of the early Romantics, combined with the formal discipline of Mozart or Haydn.
The Sixth Quartet was written in 1905. Tchaikovsky was long dead by this point, but in many ways his spirit lives on. Tchaikovsky too was a devotee of Classical balance and order, virtues that Taneyev upheld throughout his career. As befits a more mature work, the Sixth has a greater emotional depth. The surface textures are often simple, but darker undercurrents are never far beneath the surface. And the occasional rhythmic or textural distortion has the effect of wrong footing the listener, preventing you from ever taking this easy going music for granted.
As with previous instalments, the sound quality on this late 1970s transfer is excellent. Each instrument is clearly defined, yet the sound always coheres for the tuttis, whatever dynamic. The playing is better than on some of the other volumes, and certainly a marked improvement on vol. 3. That said, tuning remains an issue, and both of the slow movements have their moments. Louder passages can get out of control as well; the coda of the first movement of the Sixth is pretty ropy. Fortunately then, very little of the music of these two works is particularly loud.
Out of the complete cycle, this is probably the most solid disc, both in terms of the composition and the performance. Neither Taneyev, nor the quartet that bear his name, err significantly, but then neither do they take any particular risks. A worthy inclusion in the complete string quartet cycle, but not in any sense exceptional.