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Piano Quintet in G minor, Op 30

'Arensky & Taneyev: Piano Quintets' (CDA67965)
Arensky & Taneyev: Piano Quintets
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Movement 1: Introduzione: Adagio mesto – Allegro patetico
Movement 2: Scherzo: Presto – Moderato teneramente – Tempo 1 – Prestissimo
Movement 3: Largo
Movement 4: Finale: Allegro vivace – Moderato maestoso

Piano Quintet in G minor, Op 30
As a composer Taneyev’s reputation has suffered from the knee-jerk association of contrapuntal mastery with expressive dryness. It is true that he took an architectural approach to large-scale form, working from a vision of the overall proportions down to the details. It is also the case that he was in the habit of systematically investigating the combinatorial possibilities of his themes before committing himself to the act of composition itself. He was also extremely self-critical, approving only one of his four symphonies for publication, for instance. But in his chamber music especially (notably his nine string quartets) there is a warmth to the lyricism, an energy to the fast movements, and a charm to the scherzos, that belie his reputation for intellectual aloofness. The often-used epithet ‘the Russian Brahms’ (also applied to Medtner) deserves to be pronounced with admiration rather than with a sneer, and it fits the Piano Quintet particularly well, as regards both its instrumental writing and its intellectual passion. Composed in 1911, this massive work bids fair for the accolade of the greatest work in the Russian piano-chamber repertoire before Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet of 1940. Only the extravagance of its technical demands can explain its failure to establish itself in the standard repertoire.

The first movement is prefaced by a dark, searching introduction, all of whose ideas will eventually be stirred into the melting-pot of the Allegro patetico. The shadowy theme heard at the outset on the piano (emulated by Prokofiev more than thirty years later, in one of his darkest and most impressive works, the First Violin Sonata) transmutes into the main theme of the movement. It also engenders the main contrasting idea, when, as if by magic, its descending contour is inverted to reveal a nobly aspiring tune. Both thematic groups are led off by the piano, as is the development section (beginning ‘stormily’, after a pizzicato cadence for the strings). Waves of compositional and instrumental virtuosity culminate in a recapitulation that allocates the aspiring theme to the cello and is unremitting in its technical demands on the pianist.

The charm of the effervescent Scherzo rests most obviously on the bouncing staccatos for the strings, but more subtly also on the harmonic deflections in the main theme and in the various circuitous routes Taneyev devises in order to get back to the home key. Not least among the challenges to the pianist in this movement are the scales that lead into the main theme. Initially unobtrusive, these grow on each appearance, eventually covering most of the instrument’s range. Sandwiched in the middle of the movement is a warm-hearted trio section, whose opening bars briefly reappear as a kind of parenthesis in the headlong coda.

Smuggled into that coda is a descending scalic figure that will become the foundation of the Largo, a slow movement of almost Handelian stateliness. This theme is presented in statuesque octaves at the outset, then becomes the support for a lyrical flowering in the strings that seems determined to find freedom of movement despite the stubborn repetitions in the cello. The entire Largo unfolds as a dialogue: not just between piano and strings but also on a more philosophical level, between intellectual severity and expressive warmth.

If the slow movement is a tour de force of construction, so too is the Finale. Its first half is in a constant state of flux, almost as though an entire exposition section has been deleted and we have been plunged instead straight into the development. At length the first movement’s main ideas are caught up in the maelstrom, provoking a grandiose climax. Even this, however, is only the beginning of a coda that is laid out on the grandest scale and topped off by a tintinnabulating affirmation of the long-withheld G major.

from notes by David Fanning © 2013

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