About this Recording
8.573671 - TANEYEV, S.I.: String Quartets (Complete), Vol. 5 (Carpe Diem String Quartet) - No. 8 / String Quintet No. 2

Sergey Ivanovich Taneyev (1856–1915)
String Quartet No. 8 • String Quintet No. 2, Op. 16


In western countries, Sergey Taneyev’s reputation is still largely based on his musical scholarship, his teaching, and his accomplishments as a pianist. As a composer, he is more admired for being a meticulous craftsman than a gifted melodist, and thus his output, which is not large, continues to stand in the shadow of his teacher Tchaikovsky as well as his students Rachmaninov and Scriabin.

Taneyev is widely known as a scholar of massive erudition, and certainly one of the greatest experts of his time in the study of counterpoint. He showed interest in many subjects, and was acquainted with the greatest Russian writers, including Ivan Turgenev and Leo Tolstoy. In the 1870s he travelled to Western Europe and made acquaintance with writers and composers there. And he was a devoted promoter of Esperanto, even setting texts in the synthetic language to music. A teetotaler who avoided tobacco, he lived an upstanding life devoid of scandal, and was blissfully unaware when Tolstoy’s wife became deeply infatuated with him.

It is fair to say that Taneyev’s music is more respected than loved. His most ambitious work is his sole opera Oresteia. Although a success at its première and greatly admired by Rimsky-Korsakov, it has fallen out of the repertory and its only recording is out of print. His two choral cantatas (standing as the first and last of his 36 opus numbers), are superb combinations of Russian aesthetic and extraordinarily skilled counterpoint. Of his four symphonies, only the last (also the only one he saw fit to publish) is somewhat known, but it was the piece Rimsky-Korsakov told Stravinsky to study when he assigned the younger composer to write a symphony. Tchaikovsky called Taneyev the “Russian Bach” because of his devotion to counterpoint, and his extreme compositional care has also led to him being dubbed the “Russian Brahms” (although, ironically, he claimed to dislike the music of that composer).

It is in the field of chamber music where Taneyev’s compositional voice has most successfully risen out of its relative obscurity. Two works with piano, the quintet and the trio, are considered masterpieces of their genres. His most ubiquitous genre, however, was the string quartet. Both Tchaikovsky and Brahms only wrote three quartets. Taneyev completed nine. Given his thin overall output, this is indeed a large proportion of the whole. And it is in the quartets where the diversity of his technique can be most strongly observed.

There are actually eleven works in total. Both the first and last composed were left incomplete, with two movements apiece. The second, third and fourth were not published in his lifetime. All five of these were first published long after his death, in 1952. The three completed quartets were assigned the misleading numbers 7–9, as the six he released with opus numbers were already known as Nos. 1–6.

String Quartet No. 8 in C major, composed in 1883, displays several aspects of Taneyev’s style, although it also harks back to the genre’s beginnings with Haydn and Mozart. Like the the other two complete quartets, unpublished during Taneyev’s lifetime, it is structurally sound, melodically pleasing, and harmonically adventurous. His contrapuntal gifts are on full display in the finale’s central fugue.

The first movement invokes Haydn in the forceful C major chords that open the proceedings and in the rustic main theme that follows. The angular, but yearning second theme in G major is given to the first violin and cello in succession. Taneyev is often at his best in development sections. This one proceeds at some length, extensively using distant keys such as D flat major. In the non-literal reprise, the second theme appears in E flat in the cello before coming around to the home key in the first violin. The effective coda uses as its climax a soaring, exuberant phrase not heard since early in the movement.

The second movement in F major is a beautiful and romantic triple-metre Adagio tinged by chromaticism, both in its melodic invention and in its harmony. It also ventures to distant keys, including a climactic passage in D flat major and a later thematic presentation in G flat. The ending, with the cello ascending to its stratosphere as the other instruments hold a high chord, is exquisite and ethereal.

Like the first movement, the genial minuet is infused with the spirit of Haydn and Mozart, though significantly more extended than most models from those composers. Unusually, Taneyev does not include a contrasting Trio section, instead opting for a wide-ranging coda. The finale sounds as if it will be a traditional closer, with a jaunty main theme in dotted rhythms and a smoother, more tuneful second theme, but the development section is aborted in favour of an extended fugue in E flat major based on the main theme. The two themes are reprised after the fugue and then combined in the coda.

Taneyev also composed two mature string quintets, both written between the last two quartets (Nos. 5 and 6). The first was written with two cellos and the second, String Quintet No. 2 in C major, Op. 16, for the more traditional setting with two violas. Completed in 1905, the second quintet is a monumental work in every sense, standing firmly alongside the later quartets. It was dedicated to the memory of Russian philanthropist and publisher Mitrofan Belyayev, who died in 1904.

The first movement is marked Allegro sostenuto, an unusual but appropriate designation given the movement’s breadth. The long 3/2 measures add to this feeling, as does the rich scoring for the five instruments. The main theme has a distinctive and pervasive syncopated rhythm that is presented both lyrically and forcefully over the course of the thirteen-minute movement. A more melancholy second theme group, apparently in A major but strongly suggesting related minor keys, erupts into a faster closing passage. The large development section culminates in a passionate cello line before the full reprise and the coda, in which the memorable rhythm of the main theme rushes Vivace to the conclusion. Taneyev clearly wishes to drive home the importance of the rhythm and the melody so that the appearance of the transformed theme in the finale will be clearly apparent to the listener.

The second movement is a hymn-like Adagio espressivo in E flat major. Cast in ternary form with a central section in C major, the music is serious and often highly chromatic, but always intensely melodic. Some lightness is provided by skittish transitional passages with trill-like figuration.

The G major third movement has aspects of the expected scherzo type, but this Allegretto is a piece of surprising complexity and length. It begins with a gentle waltz-like theme that is transformed into a faster scherzando. There follows a contrasting mazurka-like section in E minor. Rather than simply returning to the opening waltz and scherzando, Taneyev subjects them to transformations, including an appearance of the waltz in C sharp minor and the return of the mazurka section in other minor keys before the scherzando rushes toward a quiet close.

The finale, Vivace e con fuoco, is not in C major, but C minor, and has a mood of agitated anger throughout. A dramatic opening theme soon gives way to the unmistakable rhythm from the main theme of the first movement. The first movement theme is swept along into the C minor storm and developed with the finale’s own theme at length. The culmination comes in a massive fugue based on the first movement theme. The quintet texture is utilised to its maximum potential and pizzicato is incorporated into the dense counterpoint. The Prestissimo coda offers no major-key reprieve, and the quintet closes with a massive statement of the main first movement motive.

Kelly Dean Hansen © 2016

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