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Sergei Ivanovich TANEYEV (1856-1915)
Violin sonata in A minor (1911) [25:00]
Piano Trio in D, Op. 22 (1908) [40:02]
Piano Quartet in E, Op. 20 (1902-6) [45:27]
Piano Quintet in G minor, Op. 30 (1910-11) [47:04]
Daniela Cammarano and Daniele Orlando (violins), Paolo Castellitto (viola), Andrea Agostinelli (cello), Alessandro Deljavan (piano)
rec. 2013, Teatro Comunale, Atri, Italy
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 95766 [3 CDs: 157:39]

Taneyev, like Medtner and Myaskovsky in the next generation, has never had the international recognition he deserves. In Russia, I understand, he is a greatly admired figure. He was in his time a respected teacher, a fine pianist, a close friend of Tchaikovsky, and the author of a massive textbook on counterpoint (available in English), which has led some people to write him off as academic in the bad sense without, one suspects, having listened to much of his music. My initiation came a few years ago from reviewing a disc including his piano quintet, one of his last, and, by common consent, one of his best works. I found this a wonderful piece, and since then I have been looking for opportunities to hear more Taneyev. It has come with this collection which contains his four chamber works including the piano.

I should briefly sketch out his idiom for those unfamiliar with him. He has been called the Russian Brahms (as has Medtner), and indeed there are a number of similarities. He has an absolutely secure technique, as you would expect from the author of a textbook on counterpoint. He looks back to Beethoven and Bach, not to the Russian nationalist composers, and I do not think you would necessarily realize that he was Russian from his music. Like Brahms he is a romantic, with great sweeping themes and surges of emotion. He can also create strongly contrasted themes and he enjoys rhythmic exuberance. He can also be playful and witty when he chooses. His music has a great deal of variety.

The four works here date from his later years and have a good deal in common. It is interesting that they are all in forms which Brahms himself used. Three of the four are in four movements. The violin sonata opens with a movement in a clearly articulated sonata form, slightly melancholy in tone. The slow movement begins with a chorale on the piano, followed by variations. It is gentle and serene. There follows a minuet – not a scherzo – reminiscent of the eighteenth century. The finale is a rondo with well contrasted episodes. A sudden modulation just before the end changes the mood from sadness to calm.

The piano trio has a forthright opening, and thereafter Taneyev makes a great deal of the contrast between the piano and the strings. The second movement starts as a savage scherzo, sombre in mood, and suggesting to me the scherzos of Chopin. There is then a sudden change of mood and we have a theme and variations. The slow movement is much lighter in tone. There is a cadenza for the violin before the finale, which is light-hearted and playful, and there is a piano cadenza just before the end.

The piano quartet is in three movements, not four, and these are longer than in the other pieces. Although this was published close in time to the other works here, apparently it was started when Taneyev was still a student. This might explain the fact that there seems to be almost too much material to integrate into a satisfying work. There are some lovely passages, notably in the finale with its brooding theme, but I find this the least satisfactory of the four works here.

However, matters are quite different with the piano quintet. My admiration for this remains as strong as when I first heard it. This is a passionate work, as indeed is Brahms’s piano quintet, but here I feel that the presiding spirit is actually Franck, whose piano quintet Taneyev surely knew. A sombre opening leads to a passionate allegro. There is a playful scherzo with an almost too innocent-sounding trio. The slow movement is a passacaglia and the finale is fiery. It ends with a final massive statement which sums up the whole work.

The performances here are by an Italian team, about whom we are told nothing. They go to their work with a will and give convincing performances. The sound is clear and bright and a little close. The booklet, in English only, has useful information on the music but nothing on the performers. The listing omits the date of the piano trio (1908) and the name of the violist for the piano quartet, but I assume it is Paolo Castellitto as in the other works. The second and third discs are rather short measure, but at the Brilliant Classics price, which is less than the full price of one disc for a three disc set, that hardly matters. It should be noted that this is a reissue of a release from Aevea Classics in 2015 which was reviewed with very different conclusions by David Barker.

There are other versions of all the works here. I suppose the reference set is that by the eponymous Taneyev quartet with friends, from the 1970s, originally on Melodiya and now on the Northern Flowers label. A box of all their Taneyev chamber music recordings is due to be issued shortly, so enthusiasts might want to wait for that. There is also a starry version of the piano quintet with the piano trio by Pletnev and friends on DG. However, those choosing this set will be well rewarded by fine music making of worthwhile works in a modern recording and at a modest price.

Stephen Barber

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