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Sergei Ivanovich Taneyev: Complete String Quartets, Vol. 5 Import
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This is the fifth and final volume of Carpe Diem's highly acclaimed cycle of Taneyev's nine complete string quartets which are notable not only for the composer's famed meticulous craftmanship but for their attractive lyrical sweep. Infused with the spirit of Haydn and Mozart, the harmonically adventurous Eighth Quartet includes a beautiful and romantic Adagio. The Second String Quintet is a monumental work in every sense, standing firmly alongside the later quartets.
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Truth be told, I haven’t kept up with Carpe Diem’s survey of Sergei Taneyev’s string quartets. I did review Volumes 3 and 4 in this series, but Volumes 1 and 2 were reviewed by Barry Brenesal, and Volume 4, in conjunction with an interview of the Carpe Diem String Quartet’s members by John Bell Young in 39:4, was also covered by five other contributors in the same issue. So, here we are with Volume 5, which appears to be the end of the line for this particular cycle. In fact, as you can see from the headnote, Taneyev’s String Quartet No. 8 is companioned by one of his two string quintets, suggesting that Carpe Diem’s players have exhausted the supply of the composer’s string quartets. Or have they? Let me copy and paste the second paragraph of my review of Volume 3 in this survey because it raises the question of where Carpe Diem intends to go from here. This is what I wrote in 37:4:
“It now appears from this third release that Carpe Diem is intent upon committing to disc not just the six published quartets Barry mentions, but the five unpublished ones as well, for a total of 11. This surmise is based on the fact that after having given us the quartets numbered 1, 2, 3, and 4 on Volumes 1 and 2, and now No. 5 on the present release, the ensemble passes over No. 6 in favor of one of the unpublished scores, a Quartet in E♭ Major, composed in 1880. It is designated No.7, but chronologically, a Quartet in D Minor, completed in 1876, precedes it. If my presumption is correct, we can still expect from Carpe Diem the published No. 6 in B♭ Major, plus quartets in C Major (1883), A Major (1883), and C Minor (1911), the latter being among the last works Taneyev wrote before his death in 1915. All five of the unpublished quartets, save for the last-named, are early efforts, predating the official No. 1, which was composed in 1890.”
Well, we did indeed get the referred to Quartet No. 6 in Volume 4, along with the A-Major Quartet of 1883, designated No. 9. And on the current Volume 5, we get the C-Major Quartet of 1883, designated No. 8. And so, Carpe Diem has now given us all of Taneyev’s officially numbered string quartets, Nos. 1 through 9. Still unaccounted for, however, are the Quartet in D Minor, an early effort dating from 1874–76, and the unfinished C-Minor Quartet (two movements only) from 1911. Will Carpe Diem give us one more volume with these two works on it? I don’t know.
To say that Sergei Taneyev was the most important contributor to the Russian chamber music repertoire in general and to the Russian string quartet repertoire in particular between Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich is, first, to give Tchaikovsky more credit than he’s due. Chamber music was not his forte. His three string quartets survive mainly because his name is attached to them. Otherwise, his most successful chamber music efforts were his Piano Trio in A Minor and his Sextet in D Minor, popularly known as “Souvenir de Florence.” But there’s a second reason it’s misleading to say that Taneyev was the most important contributor to the Russian string quartet repertoire between Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, and that reason is Nikolai Myaskovsky (1881–1950), who wrote 13 string quartets, almost half of them before Shostakovich wrote his first quartet in 1938.
As has been noted here and elsewhere, Taneyev navigated a minefield of competing musical aesthetics and politics. On the one hand, he remained a lifelong friend and confidante of Tchaikovsky, whose academic, internationalist leanings were seen as a betrayal of Russian nationalism by “The Mighty Handful.” On the other hand, Taneyev occasionally flirted with members of the opposing camp, but tended to view them as dilettantes and wasn’t reluctant to tell them so. That only invited counter charges of “glaring conservatism” against Taneyev by Rimsky-Korsakov and an attitude of disdain towards him by the rest of “The Mighty Five” clique. In retrospect, both sides were right. There were elements of dilettantism and pride in not knowing the difference between a perfect and imperfect cadence on the part of “The Mighty Five,” just as there was perhaps a bit too much reliance on traditional practices and formalities on the part of Taneyev. In Taneyev’s case, the result was music that is sometimes more expertly crafted than it is naturally inspired or even, for that matter, particularly memorable.
That is not the case, however, for the String Quartet No. 8, which is a real ear-teaser and pleaser. Keep in mind that this quartet, composed in 1882–83, is actually an earlier work than all of the other quartets except for No. 7, composed in 1880. In 1883, Taneyev was still a fairly young man of 27, and chronologically the No. 8 was only his second essay in the medium. For the first 14 seconds of it, we’re whisked back in a time machine to the string quartets of Haydn. Then, in second 15 comes a wrench in the harmony so shocking it would have given Haydn a stroke and sent him to an early grave. And then, as if nothing untoward had happened, Taneyev goes right back to his Haydnesque mode. The whole first movement is like that. I don’t know if Taneyev intended it as parody or homage, but the spirit and style of Haydn lie at the core of this music, though with modulations to remote keys, startling transitions, and formal irregularities that no composer of Haydn’s time would have countenanced. It’s really quite amusing and absolutely delightful.
The second movement (Adagio ma non troppo) leaves Haydn far behind; indeed, it leaves a good deal of what followed Haydn behind, giving us instead a gorgeous Romantic romance, tinged every now and then with a hint of Borodin and the Russian nationalists Taneyev denigrated. For the third movement, we’re back to Haydn, even to the point of it being designated Tempo di minuetto instead of Scherzo. It’s as poised, graceful, and aristocratic a dance as the many similar movements Haydn wrote to entertain the Prince’s guests at the Esterházy Palace. The jaunty theme that kicks of the finale is also Haydnesque-sounding, but Taneyev’s development of it, including a masterful fugue mid-movement, is of a much later vintage and in a voice that’s his own.
Taneyev composed two string quintets, both fairly late works. The first of them, in G Major, dates from 1904 and adopts Schubert’s instrumentation of two violins, viola, and two cellos. The second quintet, in C Major, the one on this album, came a year later and adopts the more common Mozart and Brahms scoring for two violins, two violas, and cello. The work is a bit difficult to describe, and if you’d never heard it before, I doubt that Taneyev would come to your mind as the composer. I don’t know if Taneyev had any contact with his chronologically parallel Austrian counterparts or exposure to their music, but to my ear, the highly chromatic idiom of this quintet, its tonal and rhythmic ambiguities, its humid atmosphere, its emotional angst, and its basking in a kind of fin de siècle nostalgia, all remind me of some of the chamber music for strings being written around this same time by the likes of Zemlinsky and Franz Schmidt.
The Carpe Diem String Quartet continues to maintain its high level of technical execution, tonal beauty, and intensely communicative manner of playing that have been on display in previous volumes of this Taneyev survey. Here they are joined in the quintet by James Buswell, a name that rings a very distant bell with me. I’m sure at some point back in the 1970s perhaps I had something by Buswell on a minor-label LP (like Mace, perhaps), but I can’t remember now what it was. Anyway, Buswell, who has enjoyed a distinguished career as a violinist, here switches to viola to join Charles Wetherbee, Amy Galluzzo, Korine Fujiwara, and Carol Ou in the quintet. The additional viola adds dimensional depth to Taneyev’s writing in the quintet, and the instrument in Buswell’s hands lends yet additional richness and warmth to the Carpe Diem’s beautifully balanced and perfectly projected ensemble profile. No composer could hope for more dedicated, sympathetic, and musically intelligent and sensitive players to be advocates for his music than Taneyev could have hoped for in the Carpe Diem Quartet. Very strongly recommended.