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Hyperion Records

CDA67573 - Taneyev: String Trios
The Harvest (1914) by Boris Mikhailovich Kustodiev (1878-1927)
Astrakhan State Gallery B M Kostodiev, Astrakhan, Russia / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: January 2008
Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: October 2008
Total duration: 66 minutes 41 seconds


'It would be hard to over-praise the Leopold Trio's performances. Agility and all-round aplomb … warmth and colour … structural and idiomatic awareness … fine recording quality and helpful annotation too; so no reason not to invest' (Gramophone)

'Listening to the three trios that the Leopold String Trio present with such commitment and persuasiveness leaves no doubt as to Taneyev's contrapuntal ingenuity and resource … excellent recorded sound makes this a rewarding issue in every way' (BBC Music Magazine)

'There is … an individual creative spark, urgency and textural richness that the Leopolds communicate with sensitivity and terrific panache' (The Daily Telegraph)

'The Leopold String Trio … are arguably the leading such trio in the world … Taneyev was one of the greatest Russian musicians of his time. His mastery of the craft of composition was legendary among his contemporaries—he was praised especially by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov … the three string trios on this Hyperion CD make a very important contribution to our knowledge of Russian chamber music of the period … each stands alone as the individual product of a great musician, making this issue a CD of no little importance … a fascinating and at times enthralling listening experience … the music is inherently Russian, beautifully composed and so varied in convincing expression that the attentive listener is at once drawn into the composer's world. This is wonderful music, wonderfully performed and recorded … highly recommended' (International Record Review)

'Star pupil of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov's mentor, Taneyev was also a fine composer, as witness these enchanting, beguilingly performed gems' (Classic FM Magazine)

'The competition isn't quite up to their level … the Leopold String Trio versions are, to my ear, as good as it gets' (Fanfare, USA)

String Trios
Allegro con brio  [7'37]
Presto  [5'54]
[Allegro]  [7'00]
Allegro  [8'24]

‘He is the greatest master of counterpoint in Russia; I am not even sure there is his equal in the West’, was Tchaikovsky’s verdict on his protégé, champion and friend Sergei Ivanovich Taneyev. Director of music at the Moscow Conservatory from 1885, Taneyev was a uniquely important figure in Russian musical history, a master of counterpoint who disliked the Nationalist school and instead cultivated a distinctive style that transcended national genres.

Taneyev’s works for string trio demonstrate among other things his great contrapuntal abilities. His excursions into this genre were perhaps the first by a Russian composer; certainly the first of such high quality.

The Leopold String Trio is firmly established at the forefront of the international chamber music scene and received the 2005 Royal Philharmonic Society Chamber Ensemble Award: ‘Through the sheer brilliance and maturity of their playing, their collaborations with other outstanding performers, and their enterprise and imagination in programming, commissioning and touring, the Leopold String Trio have shown uncompromising dedication to an other-wise neglected genre, and advocacy for the richness of chamber music as a whole.’

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
’He is the greatest master of counterpoint in Russia; I am not even sure there is his equal in the West’, was Tchaikovsky’s verdict on his protégé, champion and friend Sergei Ivanovich Taneyev. The son of a cultured government official, Taneyev was born on 25 November 1856 at Vladimir-na-Klyaz’me; he manifested musical ability as a child and entered the Moscow Conservatory before he was ten. From 1869 he was a student in Tchaikovsky’s composition class and studied the piano with Nikolai Rubinstein. In 1875 (the year he graduated) he became the first student to win the Conservatory’s gold medal in both performance and composition. As is well known, Tchaikovsky wrote his Piano Concerto No 1 for Nikolai Rubinstein, who then refused to play it; instead it was Taneyev who gave the Moscow premiere and thereafter was the soloist in the first performances of all Tchaikovsky’s works for piano and orchestra. He also edited Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 3 and Andante and Finale for piano and orchestra for their publication after Tchaikovsky’s death.

In 1878 Taneyev took over Tchaikovsky’s harmony and orchestration classes at the Conservatory; then Rubinstein’s piano class; then the composition class; and finally in 1885 he was appointed Director. He held the post for four years and reformed the entire curriculum. Though he then resigned the Directorship because of the effects of overwork and in order to concentrate on composition, he continued to teach counterpoint, his speciality, until 1905. Taneyev’s knowledge of Renaissance counterpoint, including Ockeghem and Lassus, was unequalled in Russia, and he passed it on to his many pupils, who included Gličre, Lyapunov, Medtner, Rachmaninov and Scriabin.

Taneyev remained unmarried and lived, on the whole, a quiet and ordered life, looked after by his childhood nurse, the redoubtable Pelageya Vassilievna Ivanovna. Even so, after some years of friendship with Lev Tolstoy, he became for a while an unwitting (or unwilling) object of infatuation for Tolstoy’s wife. In the wake of the failed Revolution of 1905, he resigned from the Conservatory in protest at the Director’s punishment of students who had been involved in popular agitation. In his last ten years he resumed his career as a concert pianist, published an important and influential textbook on ‘Invertible Counterpoint’ and began another one on canon. He developed pneumonia after attending Scriabin’s funeral at the end of April 1915, then finally succumbed to a heart attack on 19 June 1915.

A man of wide intellectual attainments and many interests (for instance, he taught himself Esperanto and set texts in that language), Taneyev was slow to develop as a composer and, while universally respected and admired, remained a solitary figure artistically. His ideal was Mozart, and he defended his cultivation of such extraordinary contrapuntal erudition by saying it could all be found in Mozart as a means of presenting ideas with the greatest clarity; in fact, clarity and simplicity were his declared aims. He had a strong interest in Russian folk music, but especially as a basis for polyphonic treatment, feeling that Russian music had not yet experienced the polyphonic phase which the rest of Europe had gone through in the sixteenth century. He generally disapproved of the approach of the Russian Nationalist school based in St Petersburg—but this did not prevent his becoming good friends with Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov. He believed in well-balanced structures and thorough, logical development, tendencies that make him in a sense the most ‘Germanic’ of Russian composers. Not for nothing was he sometimes called ‘the Russian Brahms’; yet like his mentor Tchaikovsky he disliked Brahms’s music and always cultivated a distinctive style that transcends national genres. For his only opera he turned, not to Russian history or folklore, but to Classical Greek drama—the Oresteia of Aeschylus. His other principal works include four symphonies, a good deal of choral and piano music, but especially an impressive output of chamber music.

Unquestionably, Taneyev was a very great musician. Whether he was a great composer is less clear-cut. He has often been felt to lack the direct melodic appeal of Tchaikovsky and the St Petersburg school; yet there is plenty of melody and passion and humour in his music if you care to look for it. His superb technique is never in doubt, and among his orchestral works he produced some scores (such as the C minor Symphony) that may justly be called masterpieces. But chamber music was perhaps his real forte, and he contributed to various genres, such as the piano quintet and the string trio, which scarcely existed in Russia before the examples that he composed.

Many Russian composers have shown a devotion to the medium of the string quartet—think of the seven quartets of Glazunov, the thirteen of Miaskovsky, the fifteen of Shostakovich, and indeed the ten of Taneyev himself—but Taneyev seems to have been unique in his commitment to the string trio. His works in that genre were perhaps the first by a Russian composer; certainly the first of such high quality. He wrote four altogether, if we count the three trios on the present disc for violin, viola and cello, as well as a Trio (Terzetto) in D (1907) for the less orthodox line-up of two violins and viola. The attraction of the trio genre for Taneyev was probably that, with the equal weight it gives to violin, viola and cello, it has the potential to be a more purely contrapuntal medium than the quartet.

This tendency is evident in Taneyev’s first trio, the String Trio in D major. Written in 1879–80, the manuscript carries on its last page a handwritten testimonial from Tchaikovsky, dated 10 April 1880, recording that the older composer had read through the Trio and been astonished by Taneyev’s skill. But it apparently had only one performance in Taneyev’s lifetime, and remained unpublished until 1956.

The D major Trio is a strongly classicizing, even ‘neo-classical’ conception, evoking shades of Handel, Bach and especially Mozart (Taneyev must have known Mozart’s great Divertimento in E flat for string trio, K563). The first movement is a melodious sonata-form design, with an intimate and mellifluous second subject in which the Mozartian parallels are particularly close. The exposition is repeated, in classical style. The development, however, is occupied by a muscular fugue, with prominent dotted rhythms, where J S Bach is more clearly the model.

The second movement is one of Taneyev’s typically elaborate polyphonic inventions, a ‘Scherzo in contrapunto alla riversa’ (Scherzo in mirrored counterpoint)—something Taneyev was particularly proud of composing: he pointed out in a letter to Tchaikovsky that this was in the spirit of the contrapuntal language of Mozart’s string quartets and quintets. However, the piece does not sound at all academic—it is more whimsical and delicately darting in its motion, while the central Trio has the character of a heavy-footed peasant dance. The Adagio ma non troppo slow movement is a comparatively short, bittersweet meditation. The Allegro molto finale, however, is a rondo of pronounced Russian character, with lively fugal writing in the episodes, the coda speeding up to a scurrying, excited finish.

The String Trio in E flat major Op 31 was written thirty years later, and is a thoroughly mature work as well as Taneyev’s most substantial contribution to the genre. He dedicated it to his pupil Yuri Pomerantsev, a conductor and composer who later became conductor of the Bolshoi Theatre orchestra. Composed in 1910–11, this Trio was originally conceived for an unorthodox instrumentation of violin, viola and tenor viola (an instrument of cello form but tuned a fourth higher); but though the Trio was published in that form in 1911 and premiered thus on 22 March 1913 in Moscow, the tenor viola has not made headway on the concert platform and the work has usually been performed since with a cello. (For the performance on this disc Kate Gould has made a new version for violin, viola and cello which departs in many particulars from the published score: the notes are the same, but their distribution between the three instruments is sometimes quite differently conceived.)

The first movement of the E flat Trio, a festive and good-humoured sonata form, has—like the first movement of the early D major Trio—a Mozartian quality: but a Mozart made sumptuous by the full contrapuntal texture and shifts and twists of harmony that could only have come from a century later. Taneyev’s handling of the three instruments to produce a rich sonority like a miniature string orchestra is certainly remarkable, and his complete mastery of the medium is evident throughout the whole work.

The following Scherzino is an even more brilliant inspiration: a tunefully effervescent and clearly ‘Russian’ movement full of crisp rhythmic invention with telling contrasts of arco (bowed) and pizzicato (plucked) writing. Instead of the traditional trio section there is a deft, wintry development of the main ideas. (Is a recurrent figure here, closely reminiscent of ‘The Hall of the Mountain King’ from Grieg’s Peer Gynt, a complete coincidence?) The ternary-form slow movement begins in a withdrawn, hymn-like manner that suggests Taneyev was thinking of the Adagios of Beethoven’s late quartets, but as it develops it becomes warmly lyrical in character, with a touching emotional directness. The finale is a decisive and rather raffish rondo, which eventually presents the material of the first movement in much modified form to round off the structure in a logical manner. For Taneyev, however, logic need not preclude jollity, and this vivacious movement closes the proceedings not only in fine style but also in high spirits.

The String Trio in B minor, on which Taneyev worked in November or December 1913, was almost his last composition, his chamber-music swansong. In fact, he did not live to finish the work, and when it was eventually published in the 1940s the editors had to reconstruct the ending of the first movement and a substantial part of the second from Taneyev’s sketches. They argued, however, that the fact that both movements were in the same key suggested that these were all that Taneyev had planned; and in fact their structure (a sonata-form Allegro and a theme with variations) makes a well-balanced diptych. (By a strange coincidence, the British composer John Foulds composed a string trio in exactly the same form the year before Taneyev’s.)

Unlike Taneyev’s other two trios, the B minor is a sombre, troubled work, as is immediately evident from the nervous oscillations of the opening of the Allegro. The febrile mood, the sometimes intensely chromatic harmony, the passionate climaxes that appear and disappear, the restless rise and fall of the cello’s figurations, all point towards a change in aesthetic orientation on Taneyev’s part. Passages of this movement might be characterized as expressionistic.

The Andante theme of the second movement has much more of a folk-song style, but the mood remains haunted and elegiac. There follow seven variations (the last four of which Taneyev had left in sketch) that create a kind of self-contained miniature suite. Whether fast or slow, they do not depart so far from the theme as to make it unrecognizable, but they show the composer’s great resourcefulness in harmonic colouring and rhythmic variation. The first three retain the theme’s innate sadness, which comes out clearly in the Andante third variation. A highly contrapuntal Presto and a determined Allegro con spirito attempt to raise the spirits, but even here there is a sense of melancholy and oppression. Not even the sweetly lyrical Moderato sixth variation can wholly shake it off. The last variation, Presto, makes for an effective and rhythmically exciting finale, but one as essentially tense and austere as the mood in which the work began. The final pizzicato cadence, cutting off the violin’s rising line, makes a curt close to the proceedings.

Calum MacDonald © 2008

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