About this Recording
8.572421 - TANEYEV, S.I.: String Quartets (Complete), Vol. 2 (Carpe Diem String Quartet) - Nos. 2, 4

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


The name of the Russian composer Sergey Taneyev steadily continues to emerge from relative obscurity in the West. A composer who is greatly admired and revered in his native Russia, he is remembered as a student and close friend of Tchaikovsky and teacher of Rachmaninov, Scriabin and Medtner. Taneyev was a devout scholar of counterpoint and early music, a passionate promoter of Esperanto in Russia, a scholar of ancient Greek history and literature, an owner of a brilliant mind always ready to fire a joke, a closet Wagnerian and an object of Sof’ya Tolstaya’s unrequited love.

As a composer Sergey Taneyev was undisputable master of chamber music in Russia. His string quartets, trios, piano trio, and piano quintet made an invaluable addition to the chamber music repertory in Russia. The Russian music critic Boris Asaf’yev wrote: ‘With [the appearance of] Taneyev’s works Russian chamber music finally left the phase of lonely, more or less successful compositions, as well as the phase of salon music-making, and entered the sphere of highest musical self-realisation.’ A reviewer E. Gunst believed that ‘It would be difficult, almost impossible, to find a composer of the post-classical period who has such a tremendous mastery of chamber ensemble style as Taneyev.’

Taneyev’s compositions for chamber ensembles were a great gift to performers in search of new repertoire, such as the famous Czech Quartet, which championed his works, performing them to great acclaim. Taneyev himself frequently joined the Czech Quartet in performing the piano part in his compositions for chamber ensembles with piano. Throughout December 1908 Taneyev gave concerts in Berlin, Vienna and Prague. Prague concerts were particularly successful, earning him great popularity and bringing him close to many Czech musicians and performers.

Taneyev began to compose string quartets while still a student at the Moscow Conservatory but left some of his early works unfinished. He composed only two movements for his First String Quartet (1874-76) and, although he completed the next three quartets (between 1880 and 1890), he did not show them to anyone and did not give them opus numbers. Thus, his first numbered quartet is actually his fifth, and his last quartet is unnumbered and incomplete. Understandably, this has led to some confusion.

String Quartet No. 2, Op. 5, is the first quartet Taneyev composed after completing his musical trilogy Oresteia (1894), finishing it during his stay with the Tolstoy family in Yasnaya Polyana. The next two decades saw the emergence of the rest of his quartets, Piano Quintet, Op. 30, two string quintets, piano and string trios, and a Sonata for Violin and Piano. During this time Taneyev produced only two large-scale works: Symphony in C minor, Op. 12 (1898) and a monumental cantata At the Reading of a Psalm (1915).

The quartet was given its première in Moscow on 16 November 1895 by J. Hřímali, D. Krein, N. Sokolovsky and A. von Glen. Taneyev noted an unrefined, hastily put-together performance and lack of ensemble between the musicians, but the reviews were positive. A Moscow critic Nikolay Kashkin, a friend of both Tchaikovsky and Taneyev, wrote: ‘Having heard this work, we can say that it must take a very high place in the new musical literature and surely it will attract attention of all quartet players. […] For a long time we have not heard a quartet written so well and with such accomplished mastery.’

Two years after the première, on 11 October 1897, the work was performed brilliantly in Moscow by the members of the Czech Quartet, Hanuš Wihan, Karel Hoffmann, Josef Suk, and Oskar Nedbal. Taneyev thought that their playing was ‘the height of perfection’, and Sof’ya Tolstaya, who was present at the concert, wrote enthusiastically in her diary: ‘the quartet was a true victory of music. What a charming work! It is the last word of new music; it is serious, complex, with unexpected harmonic combinations, a wealth of ideas and great mastery.’

In the same year the Czech Quartet performed the work in Frankfurt, and the pianist Alexander Siloti wrote in a letter to the composer about its rapturous reception and enormous success.

The Second Quartet opens with a sombre and majestic theme, which develops throughout the first movement with a kind of Beethovenian inner energy. Beethoven’s influences are clearly heard in an array of augmented intervals, octave leaps, daring harmonies, and spontaneous intonations. Taneyev built the main theme of the demonic, wild Scherzo on a motif close to the Dies irae, a later favourite of Rachmaninov. A lyrical and peaceful trio provides a huge contrast and emotional respite before the return of the tempestuous world of the Scherzo. The Adagio shows a broad range of intimate, sincere emotions, embodied within a kind of Wagnerian endless melody heard in the cello. The intense Finale abounds in a variety of inventive harmonic devices, contrapuntal techniques, enharmonic modulations, and chromaticisms. Taneyev is a virtuoso orchestrator—he assigns his melody to various instruments, masterfully charting its passage from one instrumental part to another.

The composition of the String Quartet No. 4 in A minor, Op. 11, did not always come easily to Taneyev, who even wrote a poem describing his exhaustion:

In the peace of a monastery, for over a week I have lived here alone, writing my A minor quartet For two violins, viola, and cello. But I am tired, I have no more strength to write; I shut my notebook, and my frivolous thought, From the depths of fugues and contrapuntal debris, Transports me to a chessboard.

Perhaps Taneyev was thinking back to his summer stay in Yasnaya Polyana during the composition of his Second Quartet, where he spent evenings playing chess with Leo Tolstoy. If Tolstoy won, Taneyev would play for him a piano composition of the writer’s choice (usually Chopin or Beethoven), and if Tolstoy lost, he would read to Taneyev a chapter or a passage of a work he was currently writing.

The quartet had its first performance on 27 December 1900 in St Petersburg with the Czech Quartet, to whom it was dedicated. The Moscow première on 7 February 1902 was given by the quartet of Count Meklenburg-Strelitsky.

The Fourth Quartet is the most dramatic of all quartets written by Taneyev, opening with dissonant chords and an intensely searching melody. A short opening theme unifies the quartet by re-appearing throughout the whole work and giving birth to other melodic material. Taneyev was a master of his beloved technique of monothematicism, which is present in many of his instrumental and symphonic works. The Divertimento, Allegro vivace e scherzando, is a lively, graceful movement, written in an unusual 6/16 metre, with striking changes of instrumental colours. Taneyev’s Adagios are all marked with a kind of elevated, profound emotion that is completely free of any exaggerated, made-up expression. Deep, meditative states and a sense of observing rather than experiencing them are the hallmarks of the emotional worlds of Taneyev’s slow movements. The Adagio of this quartet is a majestic, noble movement, conceived as one endless melody. The Finale begins with the return of the opening intonations of the quartet, followed by a graceful dance in A minor. Taneyev treats his ensemble like a small orchestra that has all the power to impress the listeners and leave them with a sense of witnessing something grandiose, profound, and yet deeply personal.

Anastasia Belina

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