About this Recording
8.572067 - TANEYEV, S.I.: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 4 (Novosibirsk Academic Symphony, T. Sanderling)

Sergey Ivanovich Taneyev (1856–1915)
Symphonies Nos. 2 and 4


The Russian composer Sergey Taneyev wrote four symphonies between 1875 and 1898, but only the last of them, the Symphony in C minor, received an opus number and was published during his lifetime. The two symphonies on this recording, written two decades apart, are entirely different works that show how Taneyev’s compositional style evolved and developed in this genre. From a talented student Taneyev progressed to the title of ‘Russian Brahms’, leaving behind earlier influences of Tchaikovsky and welcoming the traditions of the Western European symphony in one of his finest instrumental scores.

Symphony No. 2 in B flat major (1875–1878) closely follows Taneyev’s First Symphony, which he similarly began to compose while a student at the Moscow Conservatoire. Taneyev’s composition teacher Tchaikovsky saw the sketches of the first movement in 1875, but had to wait two years to see the work progress, and never managed to persuade his pupil to complete the symphony. In the summer of 1877, after an eight-month sojourn in Paris, Taneyev sketched the Finale, and in December 1877 wrote to Tchaikovsky, by then his close friend, that he had completed the first movement. Taneyev was in the rare situation of a young composer who had a chance to hear a part of his work performed by an orchestra even before it was finished. His former teacher Nikolay Rubinstein, a brother of Anton Rubinstein and a piano virtuoso in his own right, conducted the Allegro at a symphonic rehearsal in Moscow. Rubinstein did not like the movement, and Taneyev himself appeared to be very critical towards his new work. Tchaikovsky, however, advised Taneyev not to rely on the opinion of Rubinstein too much, because he could well change it later. Tchaikovsky undoubtedly had in mind his experience with the First Piano Concerto, which at first Rubinstein declared ‘unplayable’, but later performed with great success.

In 1878, while Taneyev was making a piano reduction of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, Tchaikovsky was analysing Taneyev’s Second. The older composer declared that he played the symphony so many times that he knew it well and was able to comment on its merits and shortcomings. He immediately remarked that it was a work that benefited from multiple hearings, a characteristic that can be applied to many of Taneyev’s compositions. Tchaikovsky admitted that he grew to love what he declared was no longer the work of a student.

Despite Tchaikovsky’s encouragement to finish the symphony, Taneyev did not complete it. Although the Introduction and Allegro and Finale were finished, the second movement was only partially scored, and not a single musical idea for the Scherzo survives. The Soviet musician Vladimir Blok edited the first and last movements of the symphony and orchestrated the Andante, which was published and given its première in 1977.

Tchaikovsky believed that the excellent melodic and harmonic language of the Introduction proved that Taneyev had great talent. This begins with a theme played by woodwind and strings in their lower registers. The Allegro breaks through the dark hues of the Introduction with an impatient, pulsating theme in the strings, which propels the movement towards its first climax. Both first and second subjects of the Allegro are rather similar in their lyrical qualities, but they provide contrasting episodes between orchestral tutti that become more frequent as the movement advances to its conclusion. In the development Taneyev exhibits a typical trait of polyphonic development present in many of his later works by introducing three themes simultaneously, the beginning of the main theme, and the beginning and end of the second subjects. After the recapitulation the first subject returns powerfully in the brass, bolstered by full orchestral sound, thus completing the first movement.

After an impassioned introduction, the two main themes of the Andante appear in the cor anglais and clarinet; the former contains brief reminiscences of Handel, one of Taneyev’s favourite composers. Halfway through the movement a powerful and heroic move in the brass signals the return to the lyrical mood of the two hauntingly beautiful main themes. Taneyev then explores the possibilities of this melodic material before wrapping up the Andante in the style of Western European symphonic tradition.

The last movement, Allegro, opens with a timpani roll, followed by a boisterous introduction, reminiscent of the composers of the Mighty Handful. For contrasting lyrical material Taneyev uses a theme from his romance People are Sleeping, written in 1877 and revised in 1894. The dance-like, robust finale relates Taneyev’s symphonic writing of this period to the style of such composers as Borodin and perhaps Mussorgsky, a characteristic which diminished rather quickly in Taneyev’s later compositions. A powerful, heroic, and epic-like summary drives the Allegro to the return of timpani rolls that round off a well-crafted finale.

Symphony No. 4 in C minor, Op. 12, (1898), was dedicated to Alexander Glazunov, who conducted its première on 21 March 1898 in St Petersburg. If the Second Symphony was the work of a young composer at the beginning his career, the Fourth was written by a master of counterpoint, composer of the cantata Ioann Damaskin, the monumental opera Oresteia, a number of chamber works and a great many vocal compositions. By the time he completed his Fourth Symphony, Taneyev had earned the nickname the ‘Russian Brahms’, which he vehemently rejected, but, as this work suggests, the comparison was certainly not without foundation. The music of both composers, renowned masters of counterpoint who produced four symphonies each, bears striking similarities in its melodic and harmonic structures, form, and even origins. Taneyev finished the symphony in less than two years—quickly for the composer who took more than twelve years to write his opera Oresteia, and almost twenty years to complete his theoretical treatise Invertible Counterpoint in the Strict Style (1906, published 1909).

Countess Sophya Tolstaya wrote in her diary: ‘Sergey Ivanovich played for me his wonderful symphony and it affected me very much: it is a beautiful work, with noble, elevated style’. Rimsky-Korsakov also wrote to Taneyev: ‘I think that your symphony is the best contemporary work: it is noble in style, excellent in form and marvellous in the development of all its musical ideas’.

The opening Allegro molto is a complex, extensive essay in counterpoint, which introduces most of the main themes of the symphony. It starts with a powerful three-note call based on the tritone (C to F sharp), Taneyev’s trademark interval in all his mature works, in the strings and trombones. Like the opening ‘Fate motif’ in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Taneyev’s tritone call reappears throughout the movement. The confident composer freely and organically develops the musical material, building up waves of tension and sound that eventually lead to the repeat of the opening call and a pulsating theme in the strings. Taneyev’s lyricism is of a more mature, profound quality than that heard in his Second Symphony. The composer observes rather than participates, thus being in greater control over his emotions. Despite its predominantly optimistic character, the Allegro rushes towards a climax that leaves us with the sense of unresolved conflict.

The broadly flowing Adagio begins with a repetition of the three-note motif of the Allegro molto in the violins, this time a minor third lower. Powerful, surging, yearning, the Adagio abounds in clear textures and full sounds, which display Taneyev’s absolute confidence in orchestral writing.

A delightful Scherzo brings back the opening tritone call, and contains a playful, dance-like theme in the oboe. The Scherzo is an encrypted self-portrait of the composer, who adored jokes and tricks. Taneyev’s high-pitched laughter, once musically depicted by Anton Arensky in his Suite for Two Pianos, Op. 23, No. 2, is clearly heard in the opening theme of this Scherzo. The glimpses of light sarcasm reveal a little-known but important side of Taneyev’s character, seldom found in his music.

The energetic and decisive grand finale, marked Allegro energico—Molto maestoso, with its brilliant, scintillating orchestration, and majestic, optimistic character re-confirms life-giving strength. As in his opera Oresteia, here Taneyev is interested in a human being who is the master of his own destiny, but who has to earn this right through struggle and hardship. This is shown in great contrasts, which are reminiscent now of Wagner’s musical identification of Fafner in Das Rheingold, now of instrumental episodes from Rubinstein’s opera The Demon, and signal flashes of what Shostakovich would develop later in his motoric drumming instrumental episodes. Taneyev powerfully and confidently marches towards victory in the brass-heavy finale of this monumental, heroic symphony that has been considered by many to be his finest instrumental composition.

Anastasia Belina

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