Taneyev’s Quartets Brilliantly Played by California String Quartet

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TANEYEV: String Quartets Nos. 2 & 6 / California String Quartet / Centaur 3589

As 19th-century Russian composers go, Sergei Taneyev was one of the most interesting but scarcely one of the most famous. Tchaikovsky, Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky and Borodin are only a few of those who eclipsed him during his lifetime, and since he lived until 1915 you could also throw in Scriabin and Rachmaninov. Yet as these two string quartets prove, he wrote some very interesting and intense music, although its intensity is increased here by the straight-ahead, no-relaxation-or-pause style of the California String Quartet.

I should say right at the start that this style does not always work in music from the Romantic era. The first such performance I recall hearing was the Heifetz-Piatagorsky Quartet’s performance (with an additional cellist) of Schubert’s great String Quintet back in the 1960s. There was a certain excitement about it, but by and large the performance missed a lot of nuance. To a certain extent, the same is true of the California Quartet’s performances of Taneyev here, but I’ve heard other performances of the String Quartet No. 2 with rubato in it, and there were moments when the music sagged. It does not sag here. Moreover, the California Quartet plays with an almost incredible intensity, making this piece sound more akin to the hyper-emotional string quartets of Janáček from the 1920s, which is not a bad thing.

Thus, as long as you are aware of this and buckle up your seat belts tightly, I think you’ll enjoy the ride, because the California Quartet at least has the benefit of strong emotion in their playing, and Russian music is pretty much all about strong emotion anyway. In addition, their tighter, more terse reading has the benefit of illustrating the structure of the music with greater precision. Think of it as the chamber music equivalent of Arturo Toscanini’s performances of the Schubert Second Symphony or Eduardo Fernandez’ performance of Albéniz’ Ibéria. Sometimes a tauter projection of the music helps to work over its stodgy spots.

As you listen, you begin to appreciate some of the interesting qualities of Taneyev’s music, for instance the quirky melodic line and constantly shifting chromatics of the second-movement Scherzo, with its strange, falling figures and ominous overtones, or the later shift to a surprisingly lighter, more quicksilver theme in the major with none of the angst of the preceding pages. There is no lack of feeling in the very Romantic Adagio espressivo, nor any lack of a good, rich-sounding string vibrato so necessary to this music’s success. This movement begins in F minor, later morphing to E-flat major, and builds up section to section like a dramatic opera aria. One can almost imagine a singer like Anne Schwanewilms cutting loose on this melody with an orchestra playing the underlying music, expanded in orchestration to include brass and winds as well as strings. There is also considerable angst in the quicker middle section, which leaves the suggestion of opera arias behind. After such interesting and intense excursions, the last movement almost seems like a jolly ride-out to the quartet.

The Sixth Quartet begins with a much less intense, almost meandering first movement in B-flat major. A repeating syncopated figure is tossed around among the instruments, and implied even when it is not audible, giving the music a jaunty feeling. In the second half of the movement, the rhythm shifts to a single eighth note followed by a triplet of eights, repeated throughout the bar; then this falls away as the rhythm shifts to a more conventional 4, and slows down towards the end. The second movement, marked Adagio serioso, features the cello playing the rhythm on 1 and 3 in each bar at the outset. The melodic line is a bit quirky but not nearly as intense as the slow movement in the second quartet, though it does lend itself to extension and variations even better. Taneyev’s sense of melody is indeed Russian in feeling, but also somewhat Germanic as well. At the four-minute mark the music suddenly breaks off and a new, more intense theme in the minor is introduced as an opposing emotion. This, in turn, affects the so-far placid mood, as darker chord positions bring the music in and out of shadows as it turns back to the mood of the opening.

The scherzo, marked Giga, is a jolly tune in G major that suddenly shifts to G minor and back again at whim. Dramatic pauses and equally dramatic upward bow sweeps on the violins add interest as the music progresses and morphs, the galumphing rhythm fairly relentless until roughly the two-minute mark, when a quieter, more mysterious theme makes its appearance and the bouncing rhythm relents. Interesting chromatic changes come and go, there’s a dramatic pause, then suddenly we’re back in the jolly environment of the opening. More luftpausen as the music toodles along, now with variants on the original theme, and a lively final section with allusions to the minor once again as the music just sort of quietly shuffles off.

The final Allegro moderato is yet another pleasant movement, much like the first, except with more cat-and-mouse games being played by the sudden and surprising dead stops. When the music really winds itself up, it is with a bouncing rhythm, followed by an even faster passage that continually shifts in harmony. The California Quartet has a great deal of fun with this piece, evidently enjoying Taneyev’s unusual and unexpected chromatic shifts that keep changing both the theme and the mood. At the six-minute mark, Taneyev plays even more cat-and-mouse with some surprising lunges forward followed by pauses, then a return to the opening theme for the final section (with variants, of course).

This is clearly an effervescent and engaging reading of these two fine quartets, well worth hearing for the remarkable changes of mood, tempo and harmony. Highly recommended!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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One thought on “Taneyev’s Quartets Brilliantly Played by California String Quartet

  1. Dear Lynn – thank you so much for this fabulous and incredibly thoroul and detailed review. We loved recording the Taneyev quartets and we wish more people will fall in love with them. You’re beautiful review will certainly contribute to this. Thank you again for writing this and for being so knowledgeable about Russian music and its influence on the western culture.
    Best regards
    Katia Popov, first violinist CSQ


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