With this disc Naxos complete yet another symphony cycle and a valuable one at that in that it includes the rarest of the four Taneyev Symphonies as well as his best known. Sergey Taneyev is best known through his association first as a pupil of and later as editor/orchestrator of Tchaikovsky’s late works in particular the Op. 79 Andante & Finale for piano and orchestra and his treatment of themes from the Fantasy Overture – Romeo and Juliet as a conjectural operatic love duet. His original orchestral masterpieces are deemed to be the opera Oresteia and the Symphony No.4 recorded here. A notoriously slow worker the later symphony bears the op. number 12 but dates from a full twenty years after the earlier student work. The earlier symphony is in some ways a ‘problem’ work in that Taneyev never completed it despite the best endeavours of Tchaikovsky to persuade him of its merits. What we have therefore is the two outer movements complete and orchestrated by Taneyev with a central Andante orchestrated in 1977 by Vladimir Blok – he edited the other two movements for performance too. The total absence of any material for a Scherzo has resulted in a rather lop-sided three movement work but I for one share Tchaikovsky’s enthusiasm and fail to understand the disdain shown by Nikolay Rubinstein when conducting the opening movement. Tchaikovsky counselled Taneyev not to follow Rubinstein’s lead and dismiss the work given Rubinstein’s history of initial dismissal followed by admiring praise – Tchaikovsky’s own Piano Concerto No.1 receiving just such a volte-face judgement.
I am sure that part of the older composer’s enthusiasm for his student’s work is that he heard in it some of his own early strivings for symphonic form. Just as I have always loved Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.1 ‘Winter Daydreams’ this piece is choc full of wonderful Russian lyrical ardour. If you like the Glazunov of the Symphonies 5 or 6 you will enjoy this. Taneyev uses musical sequences in much the same way as Tchaikovsky and the development of the movement from brooding dark-hued introduction to passionate long-limbed melody breathes much the same air without being a slavish copy. Interestingly Taneyev became increasingly fixated on the technical structural components and the science of composition. His fastidiousness was precisely the quality that Tchaikovsky admired but from my point of view this element of his craft often threatened to overwhelm the more spontaneous lyrical voice in his music. Which is why I suspect he abandoned his Symphony No.2 viewing it as fatally flawed in musically structural terms. But it is that spontaneous bubbling quality here is precisely why I prefer it to some of his other more stilted compositions; recently I reviewed his cantata Ioann Damaskin and frankly found much of the ‘academic’ contrapuntal writing as admirable as it was uninspiring. For sure though this is a student work, perhaps some of the passages in the extended first movement are over-worked and there are a couple of instrumental mis-judgements; the piccolo doubles an awful lot of woodwind lines to rather piercing effect. Overall the orchestration feels slightly thick which sounds like a function of the actual score rather than the performance or recording which is clear and bright. Conversely he makes some mature and effective choices. I particularly like the way the movement returns to the gloom of the opening at its close; no triumphal peroration here. More to the point the movement, and indeed the whole work, contains some ear-ticklingly memorable melodies. Call me a person of simple pleasures but I would often trade a ream of well crafted scores for a good tune! Editor Blok has skilfully maintained the sound-world into the central movement which flows with an easy lyrical grace. Again Taneyev shows compositional maturity in the way he creates themes that are able to unfold and develop over an extended time-frame. In this movement he prefers step-wise melodies much in the style of Rachmaninoff if lacking the latter’s ability to imbue such melodies with emotional weight and harmonic interest.
Throughout this disc the Novosibirsk orchestra prove to be really very good. The strings speak with warmth and unanimity and the woodwind have real character. Try the mournful clarinet solo in the slow movement [track 2 3:40ish] – for sure there is an unmistakably Slavic edge to the sound – which I like – but the phrasing and musicality is first rate. Likewise the brass supply attack and brilliance when required while the horns are both heroic and warm in the best Russian traditions. Conductor Thomas Sanderling seems more engaged with the music than he was in the first disc in this series which I found somewhat leaden at points. Indeed every department appears to have upped their game, the engineering is some of the best I have heard from Naxos/Russian sources; well balanced and clear but revealing the personality of the orchestra at the same time. If there is a slight absence of lower frequencies I suspect this is a function of the recording venue rather than the engineering.
The absence of the third movement is an undoubted blow and the structural flaws become most apparent in the Finale which is both the shortest and musically least interesting movement suffering most from predictable treatment/development of the material and a rather hollow and bombastic coda. However, taken in the spirit of a youthful work it is hard not to be charmed by the piece and convinced by the quality of the performance.
Moving onto the Symphony No. 4 the compositional gap of twenty years becomes clearer, although whether to the total benefit of the music will depend on the outlook of individual listeners I imagine. Taneyev dives straight into the musical argument and there is a stern rigour here that displaces the melodic flood of the earlier work. It is hard not to come to the conclusion that Taneyev has shaped/adapted his melodies here to allow greater manipulation of them in the greater musical scheme. Hence, the appealing second subject in the low strings turns back in on itself instead of ‘blossoming’ in the way that a similar melodic conception serving the same structural function does in say Kalinnikov’s Symphony No.1. Kalinnikov’s problem is knowing what to do with such a good tune having written it! Again all credit to the commitment and skill of the orchestra here but the movement suffers from a lack of melodic memorability and it is hard not to come to the conclusion that Taneyev’s lack of enduring fame is because of his sacrifice of melody for form. Along the way much nationalistic character has been lost too. For sure there is more than a tinge of Russian melancholy to many of his melodic shapes but he relies far less than Tchaikovsky on folk-melody, whether actual or pastiched. The second movement Adagio builds to an impassioned and far from unimpressive climax yet still there is a check to the emotion that is ultimately frustrating. I am sure I am not alone in that much of the pleasure I derive from Russian nationalist and Soviet composers is the ‘laying bare’ of emotion; you either revel in it or are revolted by such display. Well I’m shamelessly in the former camp and with Taneyev I can’t help but feel he’s too concerned with the craft. The third movement Scherzo is another case in point. Everything fits together and the music chatters and scurries initially before relaxing into a more lyrical central section just as it should. Interesting to note his progress as an orchestrator – there are none of the spurious doublings which muddied the textures in the earlier work. In the best sense of the term this third movement is an excellent example of his craft. Again the performance of the Novosibirsk players is all one could wish for – neat and alert. This continues into the Finale. I like the way the strings dig into their G strings for the one of their ‘big’ tunes. The percussion Taneyev adds for this movement is rather too prominent – particularly a zealous but dull side-drum part. For the final molto maestoso section Taneyev brings back material from the other movements and although it ‘works’ there is none of the sense of resolution or inevitable homecoming that occurs when say Tchaikovsky reprises the fate motifs at the end of his later symphonies. The very ending of the symphony feels underpowered and a rather distant uneven timp role brings the work to an anti-climactic and predictable end.
Given that this later symphony is often considered Taneyev’s masterpiece it is not surprising that the recorded competition is fiercer than for the earlier work. I had no comparison for the earlier work – although I see there is an identical coupling available on Chandos conducted by Valery Polyansky as well as another identical coupling from Marco Polo and the early days of their catalogue using a Polish Orchestra conducted by Stephen Gunzenhauser (8.223196, 1990). For the Symphony No.4 I compared a version on Bridge (BCD9034, 1993) from the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Peter Tiboris and another from Chandos with The Philharmonia in the safe hands of Neeme Järvi (CHAN 8953, 1992). The Bridge disc couples the Tchaikovsky Romeo and Juliet Love Duet mentioned above and the Chandos the very extended Overture Taneyev wrote for his opera Oresteia. Interestingly these other performances are exactly as you might predict they would be before hearing a note. The Järvi disc dates from 1990 sessions in All Saints Tooting and embodies the Chandos recording ethic of that time. Coming back to it I feel that for all the virtues of fine playing and a big dynamic range too much detail is sacrificed in the general resonant wash. Neither would I say Järvi is in as inspired or incisive form as he usually is. Ultimately there is a substitution of efficiency for character and given the slightly formulaic nature of the music to start with this is a problem. The Moscow Orchestra has plenty of character and are given a richer recording than their Siberian counterparts. They are set further back giving a more natural concert hall perspective – this is probably the best engineered of the three. Tiboris is fractionally more urgent in each movement than Sanderling as well. Balanced against that is the coupling and cost factor. This Naxos disc represents exceptional value and if Taneyev is the composer you are interested in the Symphony No.2 is far more valuable than the speculative Romeo and Juliet, fascinating and appealing though it is. This is the fourth Taneyev/Sanderling disc from Naxos and in repertoire terms I would say it is the best place for newcomers to this composer to start although perhaps it really needs a Svetlanov with his gloves off to make the most convincing case possible. Despite being neither major or even particularly important in the pantheon of Russian music it receives a convincing and colourful performance here that will bring pleasure to those interested in the byways of 19th century Russian symphonic repertoire.