Taneyev: At The Reading Of A Psalm / Pletnev, Et Al

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During the late 19th century, Russian composers were busily polarizing the artistic landscape into two opposing musical camps, those who composed in a national style and those who were “internationalists.” It was all quite futile, for the terms of the discussion were suspect. Very little accurate information about the history and current state of European arts ever got into the land Churchill once described as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Arguably, only one person in Russia at the time fully understood Western Classical music; and that person, Sergei Taneyev (1856–1915), wasn’t interested in that argument.

Of far greater interest to Taneyev was the division in the Russian musical community between those who favored teaching methods that utilized only Russian models, and those who preferred a theoretical grounding composition irrespective of origins. He argued forcefully for the latter, believing that throughout Western music from the early Renaissance onwards there was much of great importance for the training of modern musicians. In particular, he considered counterpoint essential (and wrote a celebrated reference work entitled Invertible Counterpoint in Strict Style), though traditionally played down in Russia due to its associations in popular thought with Roman Catholicism. (Hostility to polyphony was one of the very few points upon which both the Russian Orthodox Church and the so-called “Old Believers” schismatics of the mid 17th century agreed.) It was Taneyev’s belief, curiously paralleling Schoenberg, that as traditional harmonic rules ceased to adhere, counterpoint became the essential binding element in musical thought. This can be heard in his second cantata, At the Reading of the Psalm, set to an optimistically humanist text by the nationalist poet and Russian Orthodox lay theologian, Alexei Stepanovich Khomyakov.

Counterpoint runs throughout this work, with the most obvious example being the brilliantly composed triple fugue that concludes the first movement. (There are three movements to the work, each with three large, separate sections. The triple fugue takes eight minutes in this energetic reading.) However, typically for Taneyev, forms and applications of counterpoint are endlessly varied both as a negative virtue (to avoid monotony) and as a positive one (because he regarded it as an article of faith never to use a technique he couldn’t employ creatively). This isn’t perhaps surprising in a composer who imitated Beethoven by exploring every possible variant he could on a theme before employing it in a work.

Despite his renowned conservatism in matters of harmony, Taneyev’s harmonic language in At the Reading of a Psalm recalls Liszt and Wagner—through Lohengrin, at least, as evident in numerous sections of his first two movements. (Yet Wagner never commanded one-eighth Taneyev’s knowledge and freshness in manipulating musical structure.) Also evident is Impressionism, at least in a nascent form, though this may owe as much to Taneyev’s study of works by his students Rachmaninoff and Scriabin as anything French. Neither influence may seem like much to our jaded ears, but they represent a surprising advance for a man whose ridicule of his harmonically advanced contemporaries at least equals the celebrated comments of César Cui. The orchestration of the cantata is conservative but effective, with numerous dramatic touches, including solo passages, both for instruments and singers, and sectional work. Taneyev’s inventive deployment of the brass choir at times recalls Bruckner, while the recurrent use of the cello or violin to provide momentary melodic embellishment to an idea brings Rimsky-Korsakov to mind. Finally, thematic quality is variable but generally good, while the development of ideas is always first-rate.

Mikhail Pletnev, best known as a pianist, founded the Russian National Orchestra in 1990, and became its conductor laureate nine years later. His conducting here could be more rhythmically incisive, but keeps the textures admirably transparent in this complex and fascinating work. The RNO itself is a strong ensemble, if this recording is any judge, and it copes ably with the cantata’s challenges. The vocal quartet is a mixed lot. Semenina sounds a bit heavy for her placement at the top of this group, with just a hint of a wobble, but she blends well with her colleagues. Gubsky evinces some strain in what is the far-from-straining range of his role, approximating some notes; still, he does soften his voice well before the end of his first short solo in the middle of the second movement. (The quartet only appears in the middle section and finale of that movement.) Baturkin is his useful, tasteful, suave self. Tarassova is the only vocalist to be granted her own number: the middle section of the final movement is for alto with double chorus. She displays a youthfully incisive rather than plummy sound, strong but without much variety in dynamics and intensity.

This is one of PentaTone’s hybrid multichannel SACDs. I’ve had mixed results with them, before, finding in at least a few cases that switching to SACD added absolutely nothing to the sound. That isn’t true about this release, however. While the engineering is excellent in stereo, in surround sound the orchestra and chorus acquire a dimension of massiveness due to hall reverberance entirely appropriate to the performance of such a piece in a concert venue. It’s impressive in its own right, especially at the powerful conclusions of the first and third movements. With excellent liner notes and texts in English and transliterated Russian, I can highly recommend this release.

Barry Brenesal, FANFARE

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: PTC5186038

  • UPC: 827949003868

  • Label: Pentatone

  • Composer: Sergei Taneyev

  • Conductor: Mikhail Pletnev

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Glinka Choral College Boys' Choir, Russian National Orchestra, St. Petersburg State Academic Capella Choir

  • Performer: Andrei Baturkin, Lolita Semenina, Marianna Tarasova, Mikhail Gubsky