Lovers of Russian music (and readers of this blog) may have heard of the fine late-Romantic composer Sergei Taneyev, but how many have heard of his distant cousin Alexander Taneyev (1850-1918)? Alexander was a civil servant (the Director of the Imperial Chancellery no less) with intriguing connections to Russia's royal family. His daughter Anna was the lady-in-waiting and best friend of the Empress Alexandra. His wife, on the other hand, was a cousin of Tolstoy.
Like Borodin he was a part-time composer. His teacher was Rimsky Korsakov, so it's hardly surprising that his Symphony No.2 in B flat minor has the stamp of Russian nationalism about it, though it sounds to me to inhabit a soundworld rather closer to Tchaikovsky. Set next to the symphonies of Borodin and Tchaikovsky (or the Fourth Symphony of Sergei) the symphony may appear to be that of a minor composer - but then that remark applies to most Russian symphonies and is surely an unfair comparison. There remains much to recommend this unfamiliar symphony.
|Alexander's daughters, Anna and Alexandra|
The atmospheric slow introduction to the first movement is beautifully scored, demonstrating that Alexander had a flair for colourful orchestration. This is an excellent section. The fine main theme of the first movement Allegro has the character of a Russian folk-dance and is complemented by a lyrical second subject (announced by the woodwinds) - a tune which starts off well though it rather trails off as it goes on. The development section works on the main theme in a somewhat predictable way before doing something similar for the second subject then climaxing energetically with the aid of cymbals and beginning the recapitulation in the same forceful spirit. The Scherzo is pleasing, with yet more delightful orchestral colours and strong rhythm made interesting by all manner of unexpected accents. The trio section is lyrical with a Borodin-like tune, complete with oriental turn (admittedly not in the same league as a genuine Borodin tune, but likeable nonetheless). The Adagio may lack a memorable melody but it's a beautiful movement marked by warm textures and a melancholy nobility. The finale is bright and triumphant in tone, though it has a lyrical second subject for contrast - a sub-Tchaikovksyan tune with Borodinesque turns. As so often with Romantic symphonies, the finale is the least successful movement, though it has charming passages.
For more Alexander Taneyev, please try this lovely Orthodox Easter chorus.
There are so many interesting hidden corners in Russian music.