Sergey Taneyev (1856-1918) was an important Russian composer whose music is not nearly as well known as it should be. He has been called the 'Russian Brahms' largely because he was a classicist in the midst of the high romantic era, with a complete mastery of counterpoint and classical forms, an interest in baroque and classical era music and a tendency to write abstract rather than programmatic music. His quartets, of which there are ten (but only six of which are numbered, the others being early works) have been recorded before. My only exposure to those recordings are those of the eponymous Taneyev Quartet. Here we have the beginning of a new series of Taneyev quartet recordings and on the basis of this one release, containing the Quartets No. 1 and 3, I think I will prefer these new ones, largely because of the limpid style of the Carpe Diem Quartet and its tendency to play them without the darker sound and occasional turgidity one hears in the Taneyev's performances. The Carpe Diem are given pellucid recorded sound.
The First Quartet in B Flat Minor, Op. 4, was written in 1890-91 (after he had earlier written four quartets that he never published, although their manuscripts were preserved) and clearly it is not the work of a beginner. It is a five movement, 35-minute work whose musical argument often reminds one of Brahms. Although Taneyev did not generally use obviously Russian materials in his abstract works, there are some tinges of Russianness here and there throughout this score, and it includes a soulful variation on the familiar Russian song 'Ochi chorniye' ('Dark Eyes') in the last movement. The second movement, Largo, is a lyrical outpouring that has some resemblance to similar melancholic movements by Tchaikovsky, Taneyev's teacher. The second slow movement -- the quartet is in arch form with a central presto -- is more severe than the first, but still lyrical, work leading smoothly into the final movement which casts off any melancholy and dances and sprints to the finish with a pause here and there to luxuriate in the Ochi chorniye variant. This is a magnificent work and deserves to be played more often in concert. The Carpe Diem, who are resident at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, do a exhilarating job of presenting it.
The Third Quartet is a two-movement work finished six years after the First but begun well before it. In two movements, the first is a nine minute sonata allegro with especially gratifying polyphonic writing that utilizes memorable and lovely themes. The finale is a large theme-and-variations lasting almost eighteen minutes. The basic theme is a simple thing, a Mozartean minuet, that lends itself to increasingly ingenious and complex variations. There do not seem to be any melancholy undercurrents here; all is grace and lightness, fitting its designation as an andantino grazioso.
This first volume bodes well for the series. I had never encountered the Carpe Diem String Quartet before but I am eager to hear their continuation of the Taneyev quartets. I'm wondering if they intend to record the earlier quartets as well.