Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Who's for a bit of Taneyev?

After immersing myself in the music of Glinka, I also want to dip a toe into the music of Sergei Ivanovich Taneyev (1856-1915). Taneyev's music is not one that musical Russophiles tend to gravitate towards, presumably because it often doesn't sound particularly Russian. If we simplify late 19th century music as consisting of pro-Westerners and Nationalists, then Taneyev falls pretty neatly into the pro-Western camp - much more neatly than Tchaikovsky. His music can sound Austro-German and reminds me at times of Brahms. Some find his music dry, academic even, with its fondness for counterpoint and its perceived lack of warm, romantic melody. Is that fair? There's only one way to find out, with two symphonies and two of his most played chamber pieces. Today, it's the turn of the symphonies - neither of which remind me of Brahms in the least. 

Interestingly, the First Symphony in E minor does have quite a flavour of Tchaikovsky. Taneyev was the great man's pupil and wrote this piece as a teenager, so it must be considered as an apprentice work. (He apparently wrote it after hearing the Little Russian Symphony.) The strongly rhythmic main theme strikes an heroic note, though I have to say the relentlessness of its rhythms soon become a bit wearing. Still, when we get to the second subject (introduced by the winds and followed up by strings) we find ourselves with the sort of warm, romantic melody that Taneyev is not supposed to write very often - and it's a lovely tune at that! As to whether Taneyev develops his ideas interestingly, I would say that here the working-out is competently done rather than inspired and his famed interest in counterpoint soon reveals itself. If it's the second subject that wins this listener's affection in the first movement, that's probably because Taneyev is allowing his inner Tchaikovsky to breathe - and that Tchaikovskyan strain is also felt in the second movement Andantino, with its gentle balletic main theme and folk-flavoured second subject - and also in its scoring. This is a more attractive movement than the first movement, even if the big tune at its heart isn't quite as strong as you'd hope. The Scherzo takes the form of a mazurka and its Trio section is a soft-focus folk-tinged affair. I wouldn't make great claims for this movement, but it's pleasant listening. The Finale, however, is interesting in being just what Taneyev's music isn't supposed to be. It's based on a Russian folksong (one Stravinsky was to use in Petrushka) and follows Glinka's 'changing backgrounds' principle (see the last post but one!) It takes sonata form, however, and has a more conventional romantic tune as its second subject.

After this youthful effort, it's a very different world that awaits you in the Fourth Symphony in C minor. This has always struck me as being an absolutely magnificent piece. Dry? Hardly! It's ardent and richly romantic with good tunes, symphonic power and bags of drama. The Germanic side of Taneyev's art has become much stronger, though there's still a Tchaikovsky-like side to the music, as with the second subject of the first movement. It is far in spirit from the 'Mighty Handful' however. You won't find any folk tunes here.

The opening Allegro is, more often than not, dramatic in character. It opens with an arresting three-note figure which, turned about, provides food for the first subject not only of this movement but also of the Finale. A storm rages and, rightly or wrongly, its character - especially during the murky opening of the development section, where a far-from-academic web of motific counterpoint is spun - reminds me of works by Tchaikovsky, Liszt and Rachmaninov's takes on the story of Francesca da Rimini (as per Dante) - the unfortunate lady herself perhaps reflected in the second subject, or is it a love theme? The climax of the development section is an especially impassioned statement of that theme prepared by a splendid ever-brightening sequence (the triumph of love before its overthrow?) The coda, after a recapitulation that imaginatively re-scores this lovely theme, then sweeps it away. It's a strong movement, I'd said.

Even stronger, however, is the majestic Adagio that follows. This reminds me a little of Mahler, though this is surely coincidental. Its solemn and noble main is superb, sounding amidst a texture rich in strings and horns. A solo clarinet then re-sings it sadly. The movement grows increasing enraptured-sounding, sometimes decorating its theme with beautiful counter-melodies.  Serene sadness suddenly gives way to a crisis in the string section which is met and defeated by a pretty woodwind melody. This leads to a very romantic pastoral scene, full of trills, which I find delightful. The Mahlerian music then returns and exhales glowingly at some length. The ending is lovely, as a violin soars over a serene final chord. Very beautiful music, isn't it? 

The Scherzo is enjoyable and lighter in spirit. Its perky theme, full of rhythmic quirks, combines liveliness with abrupt outbursts and other passionate scale-based string writing. When recapitulated, Taneyev re-writes it imaginatively. A still-more-romantic string, built (like many a Russian composer's tunes) by accreting short phrases, provides contrast. The ending is surprisingly similar to the close of Act Two of  Wagner's Siegfried

The Finale is very exciting, with a catchy, heroic main theme and a wonderful Mahlerian string theme over a fast-drummed rhythm which leads to a second subject group that juxtaposes a wilting string theme with a Venusberg-like dance (sparkling with percussion). There's a gripping development section and a brief balletic passage that reminds me slightly of the 'Magic Fire Music' from Die Walkure. (Were these light Wagnerian touches in Taneyev's mind?) This climaxes and cyclical processes kick in, bringing back the three most romantic themes from the first two movements, heightened emotionally and generating wave after wave of glorious music. The ending is huge!

Now, if you've taken the time to listen to Taneyev's Fourth Symphony, you'll hopefully be bowled over by how good it is. Why on earth isn't it heard far more often?

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