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Sergei TANEYEV (1856-1915)
String Quartet No 8 in C major (1883) [33:37]
String Quintet No 2 in C major, Op.16 (1905) [43:06]
Carpe Diem String Quartet
James Buswell (viola)
rec. Alberta Bair Theatre, Billings, Montana, USA, 9-10 November 2014 (Quartet); Grusin Music Hall, Imig School of Music, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado, USA, 25-26 March 2015 (Quintet)
NAXOS 8.573671 [76:51]

Looking back at my review of the Gringolts Quartet and Christian Poltéra playing both the Glazunov String Quintet and Taneyev’s First String Quintet, Op.14 (the one with two cellos) I see that I lamented the tendency for these two otherwise fine, second-rank composers to produce somewhat unmemorable music – even if it is very listenable. When the present disc became available for review, I took the opportunity to see if that characteristic was pervasive with regard to the works of Taneyev. Sure enough, simply looking through the first paragraph of the booklet notes, I found the observation that: “As a composer he (Taneyev) is more admired for being a meticulous craftsman than a gifted melodist”. Further down the note says: “It is fair to say that Taneyev’s music is more respected than loved”. Why is this?

I think the basic problem is that Taneyev was just too keen to indulge in somewhat academic architecture, counterpoint, etc. and he is so keen to develop themes that, unlike (say) Tchaikovsky, his developments often begin before his themes have had a chance to lodge in the mind. That is certainly the case with the long and richly-scored first movement (marked Allegro sostenuto) of the Second String Quintet in C Major, Op.16 (the one with two violas), and the development commences so quickly I defy anybody to whistle the theme even a few seconds after hearing it for the first time. That said, this same theme makes a reappearance in the last movement and, somewhat surprisingly for me, I actually recognised it there.

The second movement Adagio espressivo is also very long but it is a bit more successful with its melody. Here the music is in E flat major and cast in ternary form, with a central section in C major. Some light relief is provided from the general seriousness by some skittish transitional passages and the movement ends on a high harmonic (beautifully caught here). I was quite taken with the G major third movement Allegretto as well. This starts with a waltz-like theme and transforms into a scherzando, followed by a mazurka-like section in E minor. Typically, Taneyev resists the temptation simply to return to the opening waltz/scherzando - instead he employs a series of transformations of the waltz and mazurka in various minor keys before using the scherzando to take the music to a quiet close.

As the booklet notes, the finale (Vivace e con fuoco) is not in C major but C minor and it “has a mood of agitated anger throughout”. The opening theme soon gives way to the aforesaid return of the first movement theme, and subsequent development includes a massive fugue. Apparently the textures include pizzicato but – at least on a first hearing – I completely failed to spot this. The final coda provides no major key reprieve, and the work closes with a unifying restatement of the first movement motif.

On the whole I think this work is somewhat more successful than the first quintet. It is certainly very well performed here and well recorded (if rather “in your face”), although the dense textures are not helped by the slightly airless acoustic. There is also what sounds like a sub-standard edit in the first movement at 0:59. The splendid extra violist, James Buswell, is a name some readers may recognise from one of the first recordings of the violin concerto (“Concerto Accademico”) by Vaughan Williams, where the then-styled James Oliver Buswell IV was the violin soloist for Andre Previn and the LSO.

In terms of alternative performances an obvious rival is the Martinů Quartet with Jitka Hosprová on Supraphon. Timings are very similar with the Martinů group being slightly fleeter overall – notably so in the Scherzando sections of the third movement, which I found marginally preferable. In the Adagio, the Carpe Diem group indulges in some effective slides that add a certain something. Otherwise there is little to choose in terms of style. The principal difference is in the recording, where the Martinů group has a distinctly more resonant acoustic. Despite what I said above I think the Naxos recording quality is slightly clearer and to that extent preferable. Your choice can probably safely depend on coupling and, whereas the Martinů group gives us all three of Taneyev’s quintets (piano, ‘cello and viola) the Carpe Diem Quartet give us Taneyev’s so-called Eighth Quartet.

Taneyev composed as many as eleven string quartets. The second to the fourth in order of composition remained unpublished during the composer’s lifetime, so it was the fifth to the tenth that were published as numbers 1-6, the three previously unpublished quartets eventually being assigned the misleading numbers 7-9. The Carpe Diem Quartet has now recorded all of the completed quartets. The first (from 1876) and last (from 1915) of the sequence of eleven quartets were left incomplete with two movements apiece and it is, perhaps, a pity that this group of players did not take the opportunity to seize the day and couple these two quartet torsos with the Eighth Quartet, rather than the Second Quintet – given that other recordings exist of the Quintet. Perhaps they still have it in mind to couple them with the First Quintet. Anyway, what of the Eighth quartet (i.e. the third in order of composition) in C major?

This quartet’s first movement Allegro con brio “harks back to the genre’s beginnings with Haydn and Mozart” but there are harmonic shifts and other characteristic touches that place the work firmly in the latter half of the nineteenth century. This, then, is no student exercise (unlike the early Sibelius quartet in E flat that sounds like it could come from the Classical period) but it is a youthful work – composed before Taneyev had found his mature voice. The second movement is a romantic triple-time Adagio “tinged by chromaticism”. This is quite a long movement, initially in F major, but it also ventures into distant keys such as D flat major and E flat before returning to the movement’s home key. There follows a much more Classical-sounding “genial minuet” – somewhat more extended than would have been the case with either Haydn or Mozart, but without a contrasting trio section. The Finale (Allegro molto) has a “jaunty main theme in dotted rhythms and a smoother, more tuneful second theme” that could just have come from Dvořák or Tchaikovsky. Typically, the development section is aborted in favour of an extended fugue that ends with a coda, combining the original themes.

I chose to compare the Carpe Diem’s performance with that of the eponymous Taneyev Quartet on the Northern Flowers label (apparently a reissue of Melodiya recordings from the late 1970s). Apart from in the first movement, the latter has significantly longer timings, but they don’t sound slower; the reason for this is that they observe several repeats that the Carpe Diem does not. In his 2010 review Gavin Dixon found the Taneyev Quartet “committed but somewhat short of ideal” and I have to say that I agree. The Carpe Diem Quartet sounds just that bit more secure throughout. The older Russian recording is still perfectly respectable, but sounds thin by comparison with the resinous recording of the Naxos disc. Unless you must have the repeats the Carpe Diem Quartet is, then, the clear winner.

The booklet is a typical Naxos affair squashed (in small font) on to four sides, including the cover picture, but none the worse for that.

Overall then, if the coupling appeals, this fine disc represents a safe recommendation.

Bob Stevenson



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