Here are two late Russian Romantic piano quintets which certainly deserve more exposure. They seem, inexplicably, to have slipped beneath the radar. With the dominance of opera, symphony and song in Russia, its chamber music has been overshadowed somewhat, never attaining the prominence it gained in Europe.
The performers here are the Australian Goldner String Quartet and their Antipodean colleague Piers Lane. This partnership has amassed an impressive array on the Hyperion label, offering piano quintets by the likes of Dvořák, Bloch, and Bridge. Their Elgar for me is, without doubt, one of its finest airings. So, their take on the Taneyev and Arensky Piano Quintets was likely to be very welcome indeed.
Both composers established a reputation as teachers and pianists, and were based, during some part of their careers, at the Moscow Conservatory. Arensky’s speciality was harmony, Taneyev’s counterpoint. They could also boast a good pedigree; Arensky studied with Rimsky-Korsakov, and Taneyev was taught by none other than Tchaikovsky. In turn Taneyev’s pupils included Scriabin, Rachmaninov and, for a short time, Prokofiev. Unfortunately, Arensky was partial to the strong stuff and a bit of a flutter. He died young at the age of 44 of TB, his excesses thought to be a contributory factor. By contrast, Taneyev was a teetotaller and lived a more strait-laced existence, dying aged 58 in 1915 of a heart attack. This followed a bout of pneumonia contracted after attending the funeral of his pupil Scriabin.
Taneyev’s opus is definitely the show-stopper here. It is a large-scaled, big-boned work, one of the highpoints of his compositional oeuvre. Composed 1908-10, published 1911 and first performed in 1912, it is highly individual and original. I cannot understand it’s unjust neglect. It rightly deserves a place with the other great piano quintets by Schumann, Brahms, Dvořák and Shostakovich. One can almost consider it as Brahms with a Russian accent; certainly one can detect some influence of the German master - the dense textures for instance. On repeated listening, there are so many riches in the score. There is no doubt that it is the greatest example of the piano quintet genre produced in Russia before Shostakovich’s masterpiece of 1940. Technically demanding, the quintet is a definite challenge, and maybe this has influenced its performing potential for many chamber music ensembles. The composer has also had the finger pointed at him for ‘intellectualism’, but then again, so too has Bach. Taneyev’s contrapuntal mastery has led some to accuse him of academic dryness. None of these accusations can be justifiably levelled against this work.
Having three other recordings of this work in my collection, I thought I would do a head-to-head, comparing this newcomer to what had gone before. I love the way the Goldners play the introduction to the first movement, evoking the atmosphere of darkness and mystery. This ushers in a deeply passionate Brahmsian first movement. It is very easy to obscure the line with the thick harmonic textures, but the Australians bring clarity, warmth and light to the proceedings. They have an innate understanding of the structure of this massive forty-five minute edifice. The eponymous Taneyev Quartet with Tamara Fidler (NF/PMA 9944/45) offer a sympathetic reading, but the 1968 recording is starting to show its age. Their third movement Largo is ponderous and heavy in the extreme, adding more than two minutes onto my comparative versions. Jerome Lowenthal on Arabesque (Z6539) gives us the Taneyev only, and this parsimonious offering at only forty-three minutes rules it out for me. The earliest recording I have is by Maria Yudina and the Beethoven Quartet (Vista Vera VV-CD-00084) from 1957. I would not like to be without this recording. In respectable sound for its age, Yudina imbues the score with an almost spiritual quality, a trait I often find in her recordings.
On a much smaller scale than the Taneyev, Arensky’s Piano Quintet of 1900 has been overshadowed by the popularity of his two piano trios, especially the magnificent no. 1 in D minor. Once again, one hears the voice of Brahms in this work. The passionate, expressive first movement is followed by a variation movement, the theme being an old French wedding song. The variations themselves are characterized by imagination and flair. The third movement is a scherzo, and this is followed by a finale which recalls material from the first and second movements. The Goldners and Lane play with passion and commitment, delivering an epic view. I compared this recording with one I have of the Ying Quartet and Adam Neiman on Sono Luminus (DSL92143). I enjoyed both performances equally and decided that there is not much between them. The only determining factor would be that the Ying’s offer a full Arensky programme, including the two string quartets.
The Goldners and Lane have, once again, come up with a winner. As always with Hyperion, the sound quality is exemplary. The Potton Hall acoustic affords excellent depth, balance, definition and clarity. Liner-notes appear well researched.
To all you chamber music lovers out there, I would say, give it a go.