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Taneyev & Schumann: Piano Quintets

Peter Donohoe (piano), Sacconi Quartet Detailed performer information
Download only Available Friday 3 May 2024This album is not yet available for download
Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: September 2020
Menuhin Hall, Yehudi Menuhin School, Stoke d'Abernon, Cobham, Surrey, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Andrew Mellor
Release date: 3 May 2024
Total duration: 73 minutes 34 seconds

Cover artwork: Sketch of the Kremlin, Moscow (1844) by Robert Schumann (1810-1856)

The piano quintets by Taneyev and Schumann are among the finest ever to have been written and these thrusting performances by long-time collaborators Peter Donohoe and the Sacconi Quartet have been captured in sound every bit as vibrant.

The two towering masterpieces of the piano quintet genre on this album were written seventy years and a thousand miles apart, but for all this, they are closely related. Schumann was a major influence on Russian composers, and his Quintet was still a favourite in Russia when Sergei Taneyev took it up as a model and began work.

Schumann came to public attention in the 1830s as a composer of elusive and fantastical pieces for solo piano, but at the end of the decade, he wanted to broaden his range as a composer, turning first to song, and then in 1841 to orchestral music. The following year was devoted to chamber music, and he composed three string quartets before allowing himself to reintroduce the piano, which featured in both a Quartet and Quintet with strings. The Quintet, by common consent, was that year’s crowning achievement. There was no prior tradition of pieces for Schumann’s chosen combination of piano and string quartet, and this gave him the freedom to experiment, resulting in some unprecedented textures and instrumental effects. He was also eager to innovate in the area of form, and this resulted most memorably in the return of the first movement’s joyful and energetic opening theme in the middle of the finale, where it is ingeniously combined with the finale’s own main theme, which is a vaguely Hungarian rustic stomping dance. The perfect fit of these seemingly disparate themes allows us to deduce that they were conceived together, a feat that benefitted from Schumann’s recent study of J S Bach’s counterpoint. The middle movements are also highly memorable, with a solemn but moving funeral march, and a fleet Scherzo that works magic on the simplest of materials—ascending and descending scales.

Schumann’s potential career as a pianist had been cut short years before, but his wife, Clara, was a leading virtuoso of the day, known for the higher intellectual content of her programmes. The Quintet became a perfect calling card for the couple: she could display her dexterity and musical intelligence while presenting her husband’s most perfect large-scale work to date. She was indisposed at the time of the premiere, unfortunately, and none other than Felix Mendelssohn took her place at the piano. In 1844, Clara’s concert touring took her to St Petersburg, and Robert accompanied her on the long journey. The Quintet was given an airing, with a string quartet consisting of four Russian noblemen—amateurs, but of sufficiently high ability. It was during a visit to Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna when Clara suggested that Russia might benefit from the establishment of a conservatoire to create a professionalised musical culture.

Schumann died in 1856, but a decade later, Clara returned to Russia, where her late husband’s music was much in demand. By this stage, there was a conservatoire in each of Russia’s two principal cities, helping to transform musical life there, which had come out of aristocratic salons and onto the public stage. A new generation of professional virtuosos and orchestral musicians was beginning to appear, but composition teaching prompted fears that Russia’s more original voices might be stifled in favour of a standardised European musical culture. Musicians on both side of this debate, however, were united in their admiration of Schumann’s music: they thought that it put virtuosity in the service of serious musical ideas, that it still sounded fresh and 'progressive', that it eschewed all cliché, and most importantly, that it was emotionally warm and intimate—it had 'soul' (their own term).

While still a struggling young composer, Tchaikovsky also worked as a music critic, and in a review of 1875, he left us a remarkable description of the Quintet’s slow movement: 'The Andante, in the style of a funeral march, with characteristic rhythms, depicts some bleak tragedy. Once he has stated the marvellous principal theme, Schumann moves to a second theme of a solemn, religious nature, which seems to express, through faith, a calm submission to providence, and a readiness to bear the heavy blows of fate. The gloomy funeral-march theme returns, but this time, it is interrupted by a stormy, surging episode, in which one can hear the reverberations of a passionate soul, shaken and outraged by the tragic fact that a loved one has died.' Tchaikovsky evidently responded to this music on a deep and personal level, and quite possibly, he still had the same scenario in mind when he wrote the finale of the Pathétique Symphony nearly two decades later.

The critic Vladimir Stasov, closely associated with the nationalist composers of The Five, was most struck by the finale’s energy and popular appeal, finding that it 'could exert its attraction even upon the coarsest and least educated of people'. Stasov argued that Russian composers should be creating music rooted in folk culture, and saw the Quintet’s finale as a good model. But he also admired Schumann’s ingenuity, and his analysis showed that the ascending and descending scales that lay on the surface of the Scherzo, were present at a deeper level in the other movements. Stasov also shared a personal recollection of the great novelist Ivan Turgenev, whose immediate reaction to the Quintet was 'My soul is ablaze!'

Another of Schumann’s many Russian admirers was Sergei Taneyev, Tchaikovsky’s most favoured protegé. Taneyev was a professor at Moscow Conservatoire, with a lifelong fascination for the further reaches of musical ingenuity, and earned lasting fame for an advanced textbook in which he applied mathematics to the art of counterpoint. In his own compositions, he sought to combine Tchaikovsky’s expansive psychological and dramatic approach with such cool-headed technical calculations. Sometimes, these two facets of his music were at odds with each other, but when he came to compose his own Piano Quintet in 1911, he found the perfect balance to create a true masterpiece, and probably his greatest concert work.

Taneyev was a virtuoso pianist himself, and had given performances of the Schumann Quintet over the years prior to the composition of his own work, which he premiered together with the Bohemian Quartet. In a diary entry in 1895, after he had attended a performance of the Schumann, he writes that the piece is written in 'the true manner of chamber music, where the materials – the cantilena and the figuration – must be distributed across all the instruments'. In his own Quintet, Taneyev followed this principle scrupulously: the cantilena (melody) and figuration (accompanying material) are drawn up into a continuous exchange, between the individual strings, and also between the strings as a group and the piano. Taneyev likes to challenge his listeners with passages of an exhilarating density, with different material in each instrument, but always perfectly calculated, thanks to his expertise in counterpoint. Other Russian quintets inspired by Schumann were much thinner in their textures, including Anton Rubinstein’s Quintet of the 1870s, which also served as another of Taneyev’s models: both are on a monumental scale (the Rubinstein lasts 50 minutes), in the key of G minor, and follow a narrative that progresses from a sombre slow introduction to an ecstatic hymn-like melody at the culmination of the finale.

Returning to the direct inspiration Taneyev drew from the Schumann Quintet, we find the same attention to a unified design embracing the four movements, all capped by the finale’s coda, which also serves as the coda to the entire work. There is even a similar moment in both finales, when the music arrives at a 'general pause', like an orator making his audience wait before he reveals the most important point. In the Schumann, what follows is a fugue that ties together the main themes of the first and last movements. In the Taneyev, there is a glorious apotheosis built on the lyrical theme from the first movement. This theme rises higher and higher, but a troubling motif from the beginning of the finale continues to threaten the jubilation until it is finally silenced by the peals of church bells in the closing bars.

Like Schumann, Taneyev constructed a highly memorable slow movement, perhaps not a funeral march, but a solemn procession of some sort. Taneyev takes the baroque form of the passacaglia, a set of variations in slow triple time over a short repeated pattern, usually in the bass, although it can sometimes appear higher in the texture. Taneyev’s passacaglia has some fifty of these brief variations, and the bass line is simply a scale (recall Stasov’s analysis of the Schumann). At the outset, the bass line is stated grandly in unison by all the instruments, and although the scale descends, in later variations, it ascends instead. Taneyev creates an intensely contemplative atmosphere that evokes many a passage in late Beethoven.

Taking the events in order, the slow introduction contains portents of themes to be heard later. An expansive and dramatic allegro follows, and two of its themes mirror each other, in descending and ascending forms (the latter re-emerges in the finale). After many trials and tribulations, nothing is resolved, but the Scherzo takes us sideways, into a delightful world of bright colours and piquant effects. The bows ricochet off the strings, and the piano imitates a piccolo. There is an exhilarating collision of different rhythms in the strings, while the piano has brilliant runs from one end of the keyboard to the other. Amidst all the fun, the future passacaglia theme is already lurking inconspicuously.

The grand unison entry of the passacaglia theme is a shock after the hubbub of the Scherzo, but it fades into the background as a web of unending melodies stretches out above. The finale brings us back to earth, with the emotional turbulence of the first movement, but now with the greater momentum of a moto perpetuo. There are fragmentary references to the earlier movements, but these are carefully woven into the fabric, and can easily pass unnoticed. In contrast, there is a very conspicuous return of the first movement’s lyrical theme after a general pause that falls just after the halfway point in the finale. At this late stage in his career, Taneyev could draw inspiration from his own students. The transformation from modest lyrical theme to soaring apotheosis had been explored by Rachmaninov, while the moment of quiet ecstasy where time stands still and the melodies dissolve into trills, is more reminiscent of Scriabin. The ending has such grandeur that it seems to suit a vast symphony rather than a mere chamber work.

Some of the leading Romantic composers were larger-than-life figures. Not so with Taneyev: he never married, and his childhood nanny remained with him into adulthood; he earned most of his living by teaching at the conservatoire and was known for his caustic humour. We can easily imagine such a man toiling at the dense contrapuntal textures and inter-relations, but the luxurious presentation and the emotional intensity came not from the narrow confines of his life, but from his artistic imagination, allowing this Quintet to surpass the outpourings of his more flamboyant contemporaries.

Marina Frolova-Walker © 2024

In 2017, British Ambassador to Russia Laurie Bristow, and his wife Fiona, invited the Sacconi Quartet to come to Moscow to perform at the Ambassador’s Residence. We were aware that Peter Donohoe had a particular ambition to perform and record Taneyev’s magnificent Piano Quintet, and this seemed the perfect opportunity to make that a reality. We were also fortunate that the UK-Russia Year of Music 2019-20, led by Michael Bird at the British Council, could take us under its wing and expand our visit to incorporate a four-city tour of Siberia. This year-long festival of music-making by British and Russian musicians, culminating in early 2020 just as the pandemic took hold across Europe, was a beacon of creative partnership and a celebration of all that music can do to bring people together, before the double blows of Covid-19 and the escalation of war in Ukraine. Later in 2020, as soon as restrictions allowed, we reconvened in the studio, to record this marvellous work alongside that of Schumann. Our recording here is testament to that short but intensely creative period, and a tribute to this marvellous yet woefully underperformed piano quintet.

Sacconi Quartet © 2024

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