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ClassicsOnline Home » TANEYEV, S.I.: Violin Sonata / Piano Music (Peshkov, Solovieva)
Somewhat unusually for a pianist-composer of his calibre, Taneyev wrote few works for that instrument alone, although each establishes its own memorable mood. The Violin Sonata, subtitled ‘Of medium difficulty’, belongs to his mature compositional period and is notable for its blend of technical virtuosity and meditative inwardness. The Theme and Variations pays tribute to Taneyev’s teacher and colleague Tchaikovsky. Several of the solo piano pieces here receive their world première recordings.
By John Terauds
Sergey Ivanovich Taneyev (1856–1915)
Violin Sonata • Music for Piano
Sergey Taneyev was not only an outstanding composer, but also a virtuoso pianist whose concerts were hailed as ‘musical celebrations for the whole of Moscow’. He studied piano performance with Nikolay Rubinstein, and only a few years after entering the Moscow Conservatory became known as one of the best performers of his generation. He made his professional début in 1874, performing works by Liszt and Chopin, and a year later gave the Russian première of Brahms’s Piano Concerto in D minor with brilliant success. He was also instrumental in bringing success to Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, a work that Nikolay Rubinstein had refused to perform, calling it ‘unplayable’. After a disastrous première of the Concerto in St Petersburg by Gustav Kross, Tchaikovsky entrusted Taneyev with the Moscow première of the work, later writing that he could not have
wished for a better interpretation. Following that performance, Taneyev gave the premières of all Tchaikovsky’s pieces for piano and orchestra and his chamber works with piano.
As a virtuoso pianist Taneyev could display his own piano works, as Chopin, Liszt, Anton Rubinstein, Scriabin, Rachmaninov, and Medtner had done and were
to do. Somewhat unusually for a pianist-composer of his calibre, however, he wrote very few compositions for the instrument, and he did not perform these at concerts, but he did take part in the performances of his chamber works, such as the piano trio, quartet, and quintet, where the piano part shows his mature and more sophisticated style.
Taneyev’s Sonata for Violin and Piano of 1911, subtitled ‘Of medium difficulty’, belongs to his mature
compositional period. The most notable characteristic of Taneyev’s later works is his obvious detached contemplation and observation of the moods and
emotional worlds, and avoidance of all unnecessary impassioned outbursts. Three out of four movements of the Sonata end pp, as if the composer’s internal thoughts vanished into thin air after a peaceful meditation. Taneyev’s instrumental style is marked by the absence of virtuosity for its own sake, and this work is a great example of how the composer stays true to the demands of his creative ideas and does not seek simply to overwhelm his public with impressive displays of virtuosity.
The Theme and Variations in C minor was written as a composition exercise in 1874, undoubtedly inspired by Tchaikovsky’s Thème original et variations, composed a year earlier. Both Tchaikovsky’s and Taneyev’s works consist of twelve variations; both outwardly observe classical variation form but nonetheless endow each variation with such distinct musical identities that the result comes close to resembling a suite. The sombre
opening theme of Taneyev’s work appears in the lower register of the piano, followed by a set of variations that show influences from Russian folk-music and
Tchaikovsky to Schumann. Taneyev endowed each variation with its own musical calling card; in this composition there are scherzi, nocturnes, romances, and a
march. Paying homage to his teacher, Taneyev presented a theme from the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Second String Quartet as a counter-melody to the main theme in the second variation, a technique he would often use in his later works.
The touchingly beautiful Chopinesque Repose (Elegy) is written in ABA form with a short coda. The outer sections are in E major, and the appearance of A flat minor in the central section creates a striking tonal contrast. This is an unusual key change, bringing a sense of repose and relaxation to the middle section which, with its use of the Dorian scale, sounds almost archaic. After the return of the first section a brief coda brings the work to a close with a simple soaring arpeggio, vanishing into nothingness.
Taneyev’s five Scherzi are works full of youthful vitality and exuberance, and display the prominent influence of two composers, Tchaikovsky and Schumann. The close proximity of Taneyev’s teacher Tchaikovsky could not fail to manifest itself in melodic and harmonic language, as seen in the G minor, D minor (trio), and C minor Scherzi.
As a piano performance student, Taneyev learned a large number of works by Schumann, whose influence is clearly heard in Taneyev’s early piano pieces. The
beginning of the boisterous, energetic Scherzo in D minor, full of self-belief and confidence, leaves no doubt about its influences—Schumann’s Aufschwung from his Fantasiestücke, Op. 12, is a clear model here.
The Scherzi in E flat minor and C major are very similar in their construction. Both are built on great contrasts between the energetic, powerful, and technically impressive outer parts, and dreamy, lyrical middle sections. The E flat minor Scherzo shows Taneyev’s own technical prowess and mastery of piano technique, and is a well-crafted, mature composition that does not betray the composer’s youth—he was only eighteen when he completed it.
The Prelude in F major is the only survivor of three preludes written for Taneyev’s friend, the Russian virtuoso Alexander Siloti, who performed the last two in a concert in Antwerp in 1894. The Prelude is bright and lively; it is separated into a number of distinct sections, which are identified by changes in tempo (Allegro animato, Vivo, Più vivo, Poco meno vivo), dynamics, and texture. The rhythmic complexity of some passages does not impinge on the textural clarity, which at times shows affinities with Brahms’s piano-writing. Taneyev treats the piano as an orchestral instrument, as can be heard particularly in the Vivo, where every part has its own distinctive voice and function.
The opening of the Quadrille immediately creates a sense of space and great contrast with the use of the low and high registers of the piano. This energetic and technically demanding piece is an extended essay in a variety of piano techniques that embody the spirit of this lively dance.
Although the precise date of Taneyev’s Andantino semplice is unknown, it most probably belongs to his early period and could have been written around 1876–78, since it shares a number of traits with the Piano Concerto, composed at that time. The techniques of imitation and fragmentation, present here, are associated closely with Romantic music, and allude to the works of Anton Rubinstein, particularly to his Piano Concerto in E minor, which Taneyev learned in 1874–75. The elements of Brahms’s harmonic language are present in the allusions to the two keys separated by thirds on either side, D and G major, of the tonic B minor.
The Prelude and Fugue in G sharp minor is the only work for solo piano to which Taneyev gave an opus number. It is a culmination of his life-long research into early music and counterpoint, and its chromaticism and polyphonic textures are elements of his mature style. The work was written in memory of the composer’s nurse, Pelageya Vasil’yevna Chizhova, who had looked after Taneyev since his birth, and did not leave his side until her own death. When she died, Taneyev mourned her ‘with real tears’, as Tolstoy’s wife Sophya wrote in her diary. These tears and emotions are embodied in the melancholy and pensive Prelude that resembles Chopin’s nocturnes, and thereby pays homage to a composer Taneyev greatly admired. The fiery, agitated Fugue is a complex polyphonic work that clearly demonstrates why Tchaikovsky, the critic Laroche, and many others after them, thought Taneyev to be the greatest contrapuntal
master in Russia. The masterful, well-crafted Prelude and Fugue is considered to be the best example of Taneyev’s writing for solo piano. It is also significant because it is the only representative of the genre until Zaderatsky and Shostakovich wrote their collections of preludes and fugues later in the century.
Romance, Op. 26, No. 6, arranged here for violin and piano by Leonid Feigin, is the romance Stalactites, part of Taneyev’s most popular song cycle Immortelles. Cascading staccato intervals in the right hand of the piano, which on the musical stave visually resemble the structures of drooping stalactites, represent the frozen tears of the poet. An obvious parallel that comes to mind is Gefror’ne Tränen (Frozen Tears) from Schubert’s song cycle Die Winterreise, where the composer depicts a similar mood in the aftermath of lost love.
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