in: Reviews

December 15, 2013

Thompson’s Case for Taneyev

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Marcus Thompson, Artistic Director of the Boston Chamber Music Society, has had a fascination for the music of Sergei Taneyev for over 25 years, according to his remarks to BMInt here. On December 13th, BCMS, in the first of two BCMS concerts at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium, Thompson pits Taneyev against Brahms (the next time will be on January 18) to burnish his case.

On this occasion, BCMS opened with one of Brahms’s greatest works, and therefore one of the greatest works of all chamber music, the sublime Clarinet Quintet in B Minor, Op. 115, with the New York-based Canadian clarinetist Romie de Guise-Langlois alongside BCMS violinists Yura Lee and Ida Levin, Thompson on viola, and cellist Ronald Thomas. Not much need be said about the work itself; it’s deservedly one of the most popular chamber pieces, and is of course at the pinnacle (shared with Mozart) of the clarinetist’s repertoire. We have always held the recording BCMS made of this many years ago with clarinetist Thomas Hill in highest esteem —a better performance than those of the “superstar” clarinetists out there on recording—and it is therefore no small thing for us to say that the performance Friday was, from the standpoint of the clarinet part, right up there with it. Guise-Langlois has remarkable tonal and dynamic control, her phrase-endings were perfect, and she knew just when to retreat into the background when the musical flow requires it. Among the many highlights of the overall performance were the lovely contrast between the placid statement of the slow movement’s principal theme and the fiery yet weltschmerzlich intensity of the Hungarian central section, the rhythmic pulse of the inner voices (especially the viola part) in the third movement, and the lovely violin-clarinet duo in the finale. Our main issue with the performance was that the strings, on the whole, did not convey the kind of artistic urgency that Guise-Langlois brought to the clarinet part.

One has to commend BCMS for its gutsy approach to programming in this mini-series (on January 18, the Brahms work will be the incomparably powerful C minor piano quartet). It reminds one of how Gershwin begins Porgy and Bess with “Summertime”—one had better have something incredibly good later on to top that! So, was Taneyev the Brahms-beater? Didn’t think you’d think so either.

Taneyev got the nickname “the Russian Brahms” chiefly because his Western-oriented (or is that Western-occidented?) formally “correct” compositional style (as opposed to the rhapsodic Russian nationalist fervor of The Mighty Handful and even of his composer cousin Alexander Taneyev) was also informed by deep study of Renaissance and Baroque counterpoint, as was Brahms’s. A student of Tchaikovsky, Taneyev went on to be teacher to the likes of Rachmaninoff and Scriabin. He was thus a Moscow outpost of the St. Petersburg viewpoint that produced the likes of Medtner, Rubinstein and Glazunov. He also excelled in writing chamber music, a medium the nationalists despised (Rimsky-Korsakov couldn’t understand how Borodin could write things like string quartets). Taneyev produced at least eleven string quartets— in a chat we had after the concert Thompson’s eyes flashed at the prospect of going through those—and several quintets, including the massive Piano Quintet in G minor, op. 30 that concluded the BCMS program Friday.

Written in 1911, this was a late work (Taneyev died in 1915 at age 58), comparable in relative position to the Brahms quintet, but from a period in which mainstream harmonic practice had moved toward greater chromaticism, even among conservative composers, than Brahms had used. Thus, the Piano Quintet presented the interesting interface of formal compliance with the Classical-Romantic tradition, with rather straightforward diatonic melodies, on which was superimposed a chromatic harmonic structure somewhat reminiscent of Reger (and, as it hit our ears, a foreshadowing of Shostakovich in places). The upshot of all this is that the formalist in Taneyev required that all those harmonies get properly worked out, leading to a rather long development section in which incident piled on incident but in a somewhat mechanistic way. It all started rather diffidently, released a fair lather at one point but just as suddenly moved on to something else. The other movements had their charms, to be sure: the scherzo was a lighthearted almost Viennese affair (Brahms seldom did that; his were either anguished like the one in his Piano Quintet or, like the Clarinet Quintet’s, gentle intermezzi), while the real highlight of the work was the passacaglia in the place of the slow movement (it was marked Largo, but its pulse was much quicker than that). Taneyev’s invention here reached its peak—maybe it was the thrill of working in an old form? The finale seemed like make-work, with rapid passages to simulate rhythmic propulsion, and its one “big tune” moment a quick gesture that fizzles out, with a transition to G major at the end that seemed musically unearned. So, all in all, no real competitor to Brahms so far as we’re concerned, although it’s always interesting and instructive to have lesser-known repertoire resuscitated (so we’re not at all unhappy that Thompson champions this music).

The performances of the Taneyev were as dedicated as any composer could want, with pianist Mihae Lee joining the four strings from the Brahms (Levin and Lee changed places as first and second violin, respectively) and providing a well-shaded reading of what appeared to be a prodigiously difficult part (Taneyev was equally well known as a virtuoso pianist). One would have to say that the performers gave this work their best shot, which is of course at an immensely high level technically and artistically. Don’t blame them if this reviewer left unpersuaded.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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