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A Taste for Taneyev?


When we heard about the Boston Chamber Music Society’s plan to pair the sublime music of Brahms with works by the obscure Sergei Taneyev, we wondered, who/why Taneyev?  Last week, when we received postcards with their look-alike images (at least as old men) announcing the first concert this Friday, Dec. 13, at 7:30 in Kresge Auditorium , we speculated anew about the reasons for conjoining the composers. As has so often been the case, BCMS Artistic Director Marcus Thompson could tell us more.

MT: Yes, they do look alike and on first glance might be mistaken for each other, Walt Whitman, Karl Marx, or for that matter, Santa Claus! Part of that is due to a fashion statement of the times they lived and worked, late 1800’s into the early 1900’s. But, there is also a long held recognition by many musicians of their resemblances as outliers within their communities, of the tremendous debt their music owes to Renaissance and Early Baroque compositional techniques, and that each was celebrated as a superlative pianist.

BMInt: How were you introduced to Taneyev’s music?

I have played for many decades in a chamber music festival in Sitka, Alaska. It used to be called New Archangel and was for many years the Russian capital in North America. We took great pleasure in mining the archives and presenting great music by Glazunov, Arensky, Taneyev and others along with standard fare. From there a lot of this music found its way into festivals in the lower forty-eight. We all considered Taneyev’s music to be a major revelation!

Why hasn’t BCMS done any of his music sooner?

We have! In 1997 we first played the Piano Quintet we’re presenting on Friday night. I realize now that was ten years after I had performed it in Moscow! And in 2000, we played the String Quintet, for string quartet with an additional cello. I recall the reception it got then. People asked, why don’t you record that!? I have since twice played the String Quintet, for string quartet with an additional viola, that we will play in Boston for the first time on our January concert. You might say it’s a Boston Premiere!

What were the reasons for Taneyev’s neglect in the West and for his rediscovery?

As you know, one of our long-term artistic goals for BCMS is to expand our repertoire in all directions; through commissions, through recovering the lost masterpiece whether it is the work of a great Romantic, Classicist, or playing once ‘new music’ from our own times in need of revival.

I have a strong feeling this just may be Taneyev’s moment to be heard. After one of our artists requested we program the Piano Quintet for this season, last summer the Bard Summer Festival programmed his opera Oresteia based on the Aeschylus trilogy. Last week I turned on my car radio on the way to school and found myself in the midst of one of his ten string quartets. I also learned that the recent Music for Food concert at NEC included a performance of his ninth string quartet. All this is in advance of the observance of 100th anniversary of his death in 2015. So, if anything, we all may be hearing and playing more of his music in the coming season.

His specialty was in counterpoint and that led him initially to a very methodical approach to composition which restricted his output. Does the music sound at all academic?

That depends. Some of Taneyev’s greatest influences were Ockeeghem, Josquin des Prez, Orlando Lassua and Bach. There are lots of people who think Bach sounds academic. I guess it depends on how it is played. Taneyev was also a great teacher who wrote at least one counterpoint textbook. His students included Scriabin and Rachmaninoff, people who wrote with great craft well hidden. Brahms’s influences included Gabrieli, Hasse, Schutz, Domenico Scarlatti, Handel and Bach among others. The contrapuntal background was key to each of them.

How will this fit the BCMS Winter Festival and Forum Series?

Well, I should say that the series format has morphed into a straight concert format. The pieces are strong enough to stand along side the Brahms works [Clarinet Quintet, Piano Quartet in C minor] without too much introduction. One can read our notes on our web page and hear clips of both Taneyev pieces.

What should one listen for in Taneyev’s music? Do we hear the three against two yearnings in Taneyev the way we do in Brahms?

Now those are really good questions to ask a performer. Especially since we are listening for different things. I hope an audience will notice even on first hearing the richness of texture, the virtuosity, the passion, as well as an increasing familiarity with a small amount of material carefully explored.

As a player what really has moved me, and many others, is the brilliance with which he explores the material so that you are hearing continual variation, as you might in Bach or Brahms, worked to a degree that is stupefying. Just as you think he has said everything he writes a fugue on the same material, sort of the way Bach does in the organ Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor.

And then, the most amazing part of all, in so many his works: they conclude with him–I would say–passing through an earthly veil and writing a coda on even more of the same material in the most ethereal colors. Interestingly, in these works he doesn’t evoke “spirit” in the way that other Russians rely on Orthodox mysicism or nationalism by quoting themes or textures. Taneyev uses his musical materials and sounds themselves as might Brahms or Bach.

You are provocatively pairing Taneyev with a sublime work of Brahms. Please tell us whether Taneyev can really stand the comparison.

The Brahms Clarinet Quintet in B minor, and the Taneyev Piano Quintet in G minor will be the only two works on the program at MIT this Friday, December 13, at 7:30. How each of these works savors and contrasts that color was of interest to me. In January on the 18th at 3 pm we will be playing the Brahms Piano Quartet in C minor and the Taneyev two viola String Quintet in C major. Again, the similarities of key or mode, and the differences of instrumentation should be very engaging.

Would Taneyev’s works fool us into imagining Brahms?

I hope not. Each of these composer and works has a story to tell. I think our audiences might enjoy being in at the beginning of what will become a growing interest in Taneyev’s works on their own merits in the coming years. Many thanks for your interest. Our weblink is here.

See related review here.

Which is which?
Which is which?

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