Spectrum Concerts Berlin
NAXOS 8.574367 (67:28)
Taneyev’s String Trio (1910–11) and Piano Quartet (1906) are both immediately attractive works, each with their fair share of memorable melodies, but also enough development and intrigue to justify their substantial durations. As a composer and theorist, Taneyev was known for his mastery of counterpoint, which is in evidence in both of these works. Small chamber ensembles proved ideal for his contrapuntal devices, and his understanding of string instruments and the piano allowed him to employ them with all the textural clarity his counterpoint required.
That does lead to some challenges in performance. The violin writing is often very high, to separate it out from the ensemble, and the piano writing is often complex too. Taneyev often jumps into fast, busy textures from quiet introductions, challenging his players to immediately find that new tempo and texture, and without compromising their ensemble or balance.
Spectrum Concerts Berlin meet all those challenges on this recording, and the results are impressive. The group is a mixed chamber ensemble who give regular concerts in Berlin. These are often recorded for German radio and the recordings then licensed to Naxos. The arrangement works well for Naxos, as the group tends to explore obscure repertoire, and can therefore help Naxos fill gaps in their catalog. On this occasion, the performance was a streamed concert during the pandemic (from MetaHaus Berlin, April 20, 2021).
The performances are engaged and vibrant. The string ensemble maintains the tricky balance that Taneyev demands between consistency of tone and clarity of individual lines. The general impression is more of a live performance than a studio recording—spontaneity is more in evidence than studied precision—but the technical standards are laudably high throughout. Recordings of Taneyev’s music in recent decades have tended to be more conservative in terms of rubato than those of the Soviet era, and these performances follow that trend. Rubato here is clearly apparent, but not over-indulgent. The slow movements, particularly of the Piano Quartet, get maudlin as their sentimental melodies play out, but that is exactly what Taneyev intended, and there is nothing wrong with a little Silver Age-indulgence for a few minutes here.
Despite their relative obscurity, both of these pieces have impressive discographies, and the competition is strong. A complicating factor is the range of couplings. Taneyev’s Piano Quintet, op. 30, and Piano Trio, op. 22, are also excellent works, and lend themselves to coupling with either the String Trio or the Piano Quartet, and most combinations are available. The Taneyev Quartet set the standard for Taneyev’s chamber music in the 1970s for Melodiya (now reissued on Northern Flowers). They remain the reference for Taneyev’s string quartets, but the String Trio and Piano Quartet benefit more from the cleaner, more focused playing style in more recent accounts, and from superior audio. My go-to for the String Trio is the Hyperion recording from the Leopold String Trio (CDA 67573). That account has more precise ensemble than here, and a vibrancy that is hard to match. But the new account has more immediate sound, also very valuable in this music. For the Piano Quartet, I would previously have recommended the CPO release 777 793-2, from an ensemble led by pianist Anna Zassimova. But this new one matches it on all counts. Again, vibrancy and clarity are the primary qualities the music requires, plus keen ensemble, especially at the switches of tempo. Spectrum Concerts Berlin delivers all that here. The CPO recording does too, but the new account just has the edge. All these comparison recordings are programmed differently, coupled with other Taneyev chamber works, so comparisons are tricky. But if you are looking to add Taneyev’s String Trio and Piano Quartet to your collection, this new release will do nicely.
This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 46:1.