Classical Lost and Found
, May 2011
It’s taken almost four years, but here’s the second installment in Naxos’ ongoing survey devoted to Russian composer Sergey Taneyev’s (1856–1915) nine completed string quartets. And once again a word of explanation is in order about their currently accepted numbering, which is based on when they were published rather than written.
Quartets seven through nine, as they’re known today, were actually written before one through six. Consequently their chronological order is seven, eight, nine, one, two, three, four, five and six. In hopes of clarifying this issue, the order and year in which Taneyev composed a given quartet will be indicated in parenthesis after its title.
A student of Tchaikovsky (1840–1893) and Nikolai Rubinstein (1835–1881), Taneyev’s academic credentials were impeccable. In that regard, he would become a master of counterpoint, and publish a highly regarded treatise on the subject. So it’s not surprising that discipline informs his works.
Granted he wasn’t the tunesmith some of his Russian contemporaries were, but his music has an organizational integrity second to none. Consequently his creations reflect Beethoven’s (1770–1827) preoccupation with structural perfection rather than Schubert’s (1797–1828) predilection for melody. His string quartets are certainly a good starting point for those interested in exploring some of the least known, but most sophisticated Russian romantic chamber music ever written.
The four-movement second quartet (fifth, composed in 1894–95) opens with an allegro of such taut construction that it brings Beethoven’s late quartets to mind. Yet, despite its dispassionate structural rigor, there are some lovely melodic ideas with Slavic overtones.
The tension builds in the following scherzo, whose agitated outer sections seem loosely based on the Dies Irae, which would later became a preoccupation with his student Sergei Rachmaninov (1873–1943). They surround a delicate tuneful trio section, which anticipates the subdued mood of the coming adagio. This is based on an extended, chromatically stretched melody that despite a couple of angst-ridden episodes, achieves moments of great lyric beauty.
The frolicsome finale is a contrapuntal, modulatory playground where charming childlike ideas chase one another. Taneyev must have had a smile on his face when he composed this, particularly after penning a closing raspberry on the cello [track-4, beginning at 07:39] and final “so there” ending.
Written in solitude while visiting a monastery, the fourth quartet (seventh, composed in 1898–99) is his most emotionally fraught. It begins with a pathos-filled motif (PF) that will be the blastema from which the entire quartet will grow. The first of its four movements might best be described as a sonata-rhapsody with frequent allusions to PF. This is some of Sergey’s most progressive music.
The divertimento that’s next is light as a feather, and resembles those airy symphonic scherzos by Balakirev (1837–1910), Borodin (1833–1887) and Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908). It starts with a gently rocking melody (GR), and once again there are snatches of PF that serve as a unifying factor.
Bits of PF also introduce the following adagio. Made for the most part from a single chromatically inflected thematic idea, this is one of the composer’s most heartfelt movements.
The finale begins with PF, but soon turns animated with folkish massed chordal passages, which one could imagine as imitating some local village piper. The level of sophistication with which Taneyev develops his ideas is extraordinary, and so are the demands made on the players. Towards the end there are more hints of PF along with a lovely reminder of GR [track-8, beginning at 08:45]. And then the quartet concludes in a shower of sparks.
Once again the Carpe Diem quartet performs both works with exceptional sensitivity, attention to detail, and virtuosity to spare. As we noted before, when it comes to “Russian Soul” some may feel it’s not quite up to the Taneyev Quartet’s earlier traversal of these, but it far surpasses them in interpretive sophistication and technical ability. Let’s just hope the remaining volumes appear in a more timely manner.
As before, the recordings are very good but a bit on the dry side. However, this does serve to better differentiate all the subtleties of this intricately structured music.