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Alexander GLAZUNOV (1865-1936)
String Quintet in A Major, Op.39 [29.00] Sergei TANEYEV (1856-1915)
String Quintet No 1 in G Major, Op.14 [36.29]
Gringolts Quartet, Christian Poltera (Cello II)
rec. December 2014, SRF Studio, Zurich, Switzerland BIS BIS2177 SACD [66.09]
I have just been comparing the chamber music of Bruch with that of Schumann and Mendelssohn and lamenting the fact that the second rank of composers — with the exception of the occasional “one-hit wonder” — usually managed to produce music whose melodies obstinately refuse to lodge in the mind. Here we have two more fine second-rank Russian composers who each produced a large body of very pleasant but somewhat faceless works. Glazunov, for example, produced eight completed symphonies, several ballets, several concertos and seven quartets. My collection of recorded music contains most of this – and I do listen to much of it from time to time – but I can readily call to mind only Glazunov’s violin concerto, his lovely Troubador’s Song (for cello and orchestra) and odd bits of ballet. This may be a reflection on me but how much of his output can you readily recall now?
Tchaikovsky commented on Glazunov’s “irritating habit of not developing his themes but confining himself to repeating them in a thousand different ways” so his themes ought to be memorable for this reason alone. However, in Glazunov’s Op. 39 quintet, excepting a glorious melody for viola in the first movement, one perhaps has to focus on the many other enjoyable features of his music. The quintet certainly has charm – especially the lovely second movement with its pizzicato scherzo opening and the gently yearning third movement Andante. Several recorded performances are available, including one that elicited high praise on Naxos. The Chandos performance, by the ASMF Chamber Ensemble (led by Kenneth Sillito), is probably the best known and is highly regarded so I used that as a reference.
Switching between the CDs on two separate players I was struck by an amazing unanimity of approach across the two ensembles and, for the most part, it was very difficult to tell them apart. Even speeds were closely matched and the overall timings differed by as little as two seconds — with only slightly greater variability between individual movements. Recordings are also similar with the Chandos CD being slightly warmer - the BIS CD has a touch more treble - but there is very little difference.
For me, similar sentiments about memorable quality apply to the music of the other composer on this disc. The Taneyev quintet recorded on this BIS CD is his first – the one for two cellos; the second has two violas. My point of reference for it is a radio broadcast of a Wigmore Hall concert from several years ago where Stephen Isserlis was joined by a number of friends. The concert broadcast also included a performance of the Tschaikowsky Piano Trio and Isserlis commented that “Tschaikowsky had the melody but Taneyev had the architecture”. This is very much in line with the sentiments of the author of the present recording’s booklet – who observes that: “Taneyev’s music shows his intellectual rigour and a passion for squeezing every drop of meaning from his material”. Like Bruckner, who would start a symphony by numbering all the bars of the manuscript, Taneyev planned his compositions in detail – starting with the formal and tonal scheme, followed by details of phrase structure and texture. “The themes that occurred to him would be subjected to exhaustive analysis.” So here there is a possible reason for a lack of musical spontaneity and, perhaps, a corresponding lack of anything memorable. Taneyev is sometimes referred to as “The Russian Brahms” but in my opinion that pays him a compliment he doesn’t really deserve. That said the results of all his architecture still provide some very listenable music but it would be nice to be able to recall some of it.
Anyway, here we have a full-blooded three-movement work – with a dense Allegro con spirito, a hard-driven Vivace con fuoco and a Theme and variations. The booklet writer comments that “The innocuous theme that opens the finale promises relaxation but, in fact, this movement … covers a very wide musical territory. There are ten variations in all (each here usefully given a separate track) of which the ninth is a remarkable triple fugue and the tenth brings the quintet to a peaceful conclusion with a passing reference to Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera Sadko”. It is all passionately played and I enjoyed this performance very much.
This year being the centenary of his death we might expect several recordings of Taneyev’s music to be forthcoming and, in fact, I see there is also an MDG SACD of both quintets in the list of discs for review. These quintets have not wanted for recordings – there are already at least two CD sets available that include both of them plus the piano quintet – and one of these has already been positively reviewed.
These are both excellent quintet performances by an illustrious line-up of musicians, nicely recorded. If this is a coupling that appeals you need not hesitate – but it might also be worth considering the opposition and looking out for the review of the two Taneyev quintets on MDG. Bob Stevenson