String Quartet no.3 in D minor Op.7 (1896) [26:43]
String Quartet no.8 in C major (1883) [39:17]
The Taneyev Quartet
Recorded in 1977 and 1979 in the St. Petersburg Recording Studio ADD Stereo
Northern Flowers NF/PMA 9935 [66:00]
The numbering of Taneyev’s String Quartets is a bit of a minefield. This disc offers the 3rd Quartet, which is given the opus number 7 and dated 1896, and the 8th, which has no opus number and is dated 1883. The latter, it turns out, is one of three youthful works that the composer initially withheld from publication.
The 3rd also has a tortuous history. It was originally in three movements, the last of which a theme and variations. In a later revision, the composer dropped the middle movement and extended the finale. So what we are left with is a sort of prelude and variations structure in the spirit of a Bach organ work. Stylistically, Mozart is a more important precedent, as are Glinka, Balakirev and the other early Russian nationalists. The music of the opening allegro is quite involved. It opens quietly, but with a focussed intensity. Short, clipped phrases look forward to the agogic and structural complexities of the music to follow.
The theme and variations of the second movement are a very civilised affair. Taneyev always takes his structural obligations seriously, and the addition of a concluding variation at the revision stage creates a narrative for this movement (albeit retrospectively) of a simple theme gradually expanding into a magisterial concluding idea. That said, this is one of Taneyev’s shortest quartets, and there is always a feeling of conciseness about the music, as if the composer is wary of including any more music than is strictly necessary.
The 8th Quartet is based on a more traditional four-movement structure. Classical precedents, and Mozart in particular, are even more evident here. The coherency of the work is based on disciplined thematic structuring, demonstrating Taneyev’s lifelong obsession with structure, although not yet his ability to innovate with musical form. I’m personally of the opinion that Taneyev was a composer with a distinctive voice, although I know that many consider his style too close to that of Tchaikovsky to stand on its own merits. But whichever way, this early work comes under the category of juvenilia; a proficient study in the workings of one of music’s most demanding genres, but nothing yet that is really new or distinctive.
Having said that, the Adagio ma non troppo second movement is beautiful indeed; an early display of Taneyev’s rare ability to make instruments sing, finding the ideal tessitura and balance for his cantabile lines. Counterpoint is the other facet of Taneyev’s art that makes an important early appearance here. The finale concludes with a skilfully contrived fugue, in which the lightness of touch makes for very satisfying listening. In later music, the composer often weighed down his textures with excessive contrapuntal layering, but here the four voices combine to form light and nimble textures.
The performances by the Taneyev Quartet are as committed as ever, but are somewhat short of ideal. Those light, nimble textures are often held back by leaden readings. The music rarely floats as it often should, especially in the finale of the 8th. The quartet excel in that heavy into-the-string Russian sound, but ironically, this music often calls for something else. There are regular tuning problems as well. Taneyev occasionally puts the two violins in unison in the high register, an unforgiving texture which often comes to grief. But the violins also struggle with the tuning at the bottom of the range, which is unusual to say the least. The tuning problems are most evident in the Adagio of the 8th, which is a real shame, as this movement contains some of the finest music these two works have to offer.
Gavin Dixon 2010