Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Sergey Taneyev: Complete String Quartets Volume 5

Sergey Taneyev: String Quartet no.2 in C Major Op.5 (1895)
The Taneyev Quartet
Recorded in 1979 in the St. Petersburg Recording Studio ADD Stereo
Northern Flowers NF/PMA 9937 [41:03]

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The Taneyevs save the best till last in this survey of their namesake’s quartet repertoire. The 2nd Quartet is easily the most interesting of the lot. It is more involved than his other quartets, more dramatic, more lyrical, more adventurous...Not that there is anything wrong with the other eight, but Taneyev does have a tendency to err on the side of caution, a tendency he manages to shake off here.

The music is close in spirit to Taneyev’s Piano Quintet. In both works, the composer successfully combines large-scale structural thinking with passionate lyricism to create almost symphonic intensity from just a handful of players. The influence of Tchaikovsky is rarely far from the surface, and Beethoven too makes his presence felt, especially in the smouldering intensity of the Adagio. It is a long work, although at 41 minutes it is a short CD. But no matter, the quality of the quartet more than justifies a whole disc to itself, and any coupling with an earlier quartet (as in the other volumes) would inevitably be an anticlimax.

The opening movement is a 6/4 allegro, and Taneyev makes good use of the ambiguity between duple and triple time afforded by the key signature. As in many of his longer works, the opening motif underpins the entire opus, returning in disguised and varied forms throughout the work. This gives him the freedom to explore his complex structural plans. Counterpoint is the basis of Taneyev’s art, and in this first movement he creates a range of thematic ambiguities by layering his various motifs in contrapuntal combinations. 

But he is also aware that continuous counterpoint can lead to textural monotony, and strives to extend in every possible direction the timbral potential of the string ensemble. So there is much double stopping, occasional harmonics, subtle combinations of pizzicato and arco, but all within a precisely conceived dramatic framework. The sense of symphonic scale comes through in the gradual build ups, the immensity of the climaxes and in the textural and thematic relationships between different parts of the movement.

The 2nd movement is about as close to Tchaikovsky’s greatness that Taneyev ever achieved. It is a scherzo with a strong Slavic folk colour. Unlike Tchaikovsky, though, Taneyev takes a radical approach to the instrumentation. For example, the movement opens with the theme on the viola played sul pont, with an undulating accompaniment from the cello bouncing across open strings. Similar combinations recur throughout the movement, with the theme passed around the instruments and registers. And again, double stopping is often used to fill out the tuttis into quasi-orchestral textures.

The adagio skilfully combines a lyrical theme with a range of single bar accompanying textures. Dynamics changes, both gradual and sudden, texture the movement, again with almost symphonic results.

Almost all of Taneyev’s string quartet finales open on a light note, offering a brief interlude before the more serious discourse of the conclusion proper. And so it is here, although he doesn’t let the energy drop too far and we are soon engulfed by a swirling rondo. Tchaikovsky again emerges as a decisive influence. Perhaps the textures are a little denser than Tchaikovsky would have sanctioned, but the results are never congested or heavy.

And to conclude? A fugue of course, Taneyev’s predilection for strict counterpoint making the idea almost inevitable at the close of such a dramatic work. Again, the composer’s Piano Quintet comes to mind, and as in its passacaglia third movement, were all the players intone the theme in unison, so here, the fugue subject is belted out FFF by the four players. It is a fittingly grand conclusion to a spectacular work (although the final cadence itself is played in a modest pizzicato) and once more dsemonstrates the composer’s rare ability to integrate contrapuntal devices to dramatic and emotive, rather than merely academic or formal, ends.
As with the other discs in this cycle, the sound here is excellent, and you wouldn’t know it recording was made in 1979. The performance emphasises drama and emotion over strict accuracy or precise ensemble. That is occasionally a real problem in the other instalments, but is forgivable here given the drama of the work. In terms of tuning, the violins are occasionally required to play in unison or octaves, and often come to grief in the process. And if the ensemble is a little rough round the edges in the scherzo, that only increases its rustic charm.

All in all, an adequate recording of a great work. We owe the Taneyev Quartet and the Northern Flowers label a huge debt of gratitude for bringing the work to a wider audience. The lack of precision in the playing is regrettable, but the passion and the drama that the performers convey more than compensate. If you haven’t heard any of Taneyev’s chamber music and are curious, buy the recording of Pletnev and friends playing the Piano Quintet (DG 00289 477 5419). If you’ve heard that and you like it (you will), seek this out, it is music in a similar vein and of a similarly high quality.

Gavin Dixon 2010

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