Sergei Taneyev: Piano Quartet in E, op. 20

performed by the Mendelssohn Piano Trio (and obviously another unidentified person who I can’t seem to find a credit for) or as below

Sergei Ivanovich Taneyev was born on November 25 (13) 1856 in Vladimir Oblast “to a cultured and literary family of Russian nobility”, says his Wikipedia article. His distant cousin Alexander Taneyev was also a composer but apparently identified more with the more intentionally Russian Mighty Handful or The Five, but Sergei had “a more cosmopolitan outlook as did Tchaikovsky.”

Being in a family of means, he began taking piano lessons at a young age, and shortly after his family moved to Moscow, at the age of nine, he entered the Moscow Conservatory. Among his teachers there were Tchaikovsky himself for composition, and he also studied piano with Nikolai Rubinstein, founder of the conservatory, as you may recall.

Taneyev graduated in 1875, “the first student in the history of the Conservatory to win the gold medal both for composition and for performing (piano).” The first concerto he ever performed was Brahms’ first, and became quite a well-known concerto pianist, also performing the Moscow premiere of Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto, conducted by Rubinstein. He also performed the Russian premiere of the composer’s second piano concerto and edited sketches and notes to compile what is now today known as the third piano concerto. There are many connections between the two composers, but now is not the place to discuss it. There’s a whole section about it in Taneyev’s Wiki. Needless to say, it helps to come from a wealthy family with connections. Taneyev attended the funeral of Alexander Scriabin, where he caught pneumonia and eventually died of a heart attack during his recovery, not yet 60 years old.

The piano quartet in E was completed in 1906. It is a work in three substantial movements, clocking in at around 40 minutes. I get the impression that Taneyev is one of those composers who is performed in Mother Russia far more than the rest of the world.

The first movement leads with the piano, and then in a stunning, shimmering eruption of colorful sound, the strings descend upon the piano as if from heaven. The sound of this is fully orchestral, very full-bodied, but instantly trickles down to more transparent textures. I could go on about how this piece makes me think of him like the Russian Brahms. It’s absolutely musical, with structure and form and all that, but it’s not just cerebral. You don’t have to identify the moment where the development begins, or follow the musical layout to enjoy what’s here. Despite the significant heft of the music, it can survive on its melodic and textural merits alone. There are moments where the music really spreads wings of orchestral proportions, but sweetly juxtaposed with charming chamber textures, the sounds of a composer who is in complete, delicate, surgical control of his ship.

If there was any doubt as to Taneyev’s talent or his close association to Tchaikovsky, the second movement should settle it. It’s the shortest movement of the work, at only ten minutes, but is chock full of sweet, memorable, melodies, but even in all that lyricism and pretty, there’s hesitation, a whiff of remorse, noticeable in certain cello lines, a bittersweet tenderness, and there’s some more agitation in the central section to round out this movement’s sweetness. You’d be forgiven for forgetting momentarily that you’re not listening to a piano concerto; it reaches that kind of sumptuousness.

The finale is where the composer shows off his compositional chops in a more rigorous way. From the very beginning, it is noticeably richer in texture and contrapuntal motion, and this longest movement of the work is perhaps my favorite for it. The entire work is full of little treasures, a banquet of delicacies and detail and moments to enjoy, but this movement is by far the most exciting to me. The music ebbs and flows, is woven and built up with what sounds like so much more than a string trio and a piano, especially in the more lively moments, but the delicacy and intimacy of a chamber work are never sacrificed. It’s handsome music.

This work shows Taneyev to be a master not only of melody, but counterpoint, structure, and use of the chamber ensemble. This is his first appearance on the website, and I can’t say I’m familiar with any of his other work, but the work was completed when the composer was at or nearing 50 years of age, and it’s only his op. 20. Granted, he had a pretty successful career as a pianist, so he didn’t spend his entire career composing. He did manage to write four symphonies, nine string quartets (a few posthumously published), and a chunk of other chamber music.

While this is a very great work for piano quartet, bold and tender and expressive, it hasn’t blown my socks off. I don’t think it’s a work I’ll keep at the top of my listening list, but it’s undisputedly a well-crafted piece. More than anything, it’s a solid argument for giving more attention to the works of a composer whose name isn’t uttered nearly as much outside the composer’s homeland as in it. One may think that’s naturally the case with anyone anywhere, but his contemporary Tchaikovsky certainly made a name for himself, and maybe it’s time Taneyev gets a bit more international attention.

That being said, we’re only giving him attention (for now) in this work. There is more exciting music to discuss next week, largely from a composer we’ve seen on the blog many times before, but there’s one more new name to check out, so stay tuned.

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