Wednesday 30 March 2005
Cantata No.1: John of Damascus, Op.1
Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor, Op.18
Symphony No.4 in C minor, Op.12
Thursday 31 March 2005
Piano Concerto No.3 in D minor, Op.30
Cantata No.2: On the Reading of a Psalm, Op.36
Nikolai Lugansky (piano)
Ha Young Lee (soprano)
Marianna Tarassova (mezzo-soprano)
Edgaras Montvidas (tenor)
Roderick Williams (baritone)
Moscow State Chamber Choir
Russian National Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 31 March, 2005
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Three years ago, the Wigmore Hall put on a trio of recitals focusing on the chamber music of Sergei Taneyev (1856-1915) and culminating with his fine Piano Quintet – distinguished by the pianism of Mikhail Pletnev. Pletnev has now brought the Russian National Orchestra (which he founded in 1990) to the Barbican for a brace of concerts featuring works by this taciturn but distinctive and, almost in spite of his formidable technical armoury, appealing figure: one not so much ‘out of time’ between the Nationalist and Romantic generations of Russian composers, as arguably not of his time at all.
Along with the brief, emotive and tonally subtle Rêverie by Scriabin which opened the second evening, each concert featured a ‘warhorse’ by Rachmaninov. Having recorded all five concertos (the ‘fifth’ being the Paganini Rhapsody), Nikolai Lugansky can claim an affinity with this composer such as was often in evidence here. The Second Concerto was given a strong, unmannered reading: at its best in those passages – before the first movement’s coda and after the Adagio’s scherzo section – where Rachmaninov steps outside the Classical framework to distil something more inward than his melodic directness might allow. As a performance, the Third Concerto was less impressive: few current pianists seem to be as aware of the first movement’s formal ingenuity – Lugansky integrating the shorter and more cohesive later cadenza into the structure with immense thoughtfulness, then unfolding the Adagio’s paragraphs so that each cadential repose was an expressive marker in the larger design, but rhythmically inflexible in the finale’s outer sections and with a cut in the central accompanied cadenza that, by undermining the proportions of the whole, rather flew in the face of his credentials as a Rachmaninov interpreter.
Some non-together ensemble, notably in the latter concerto, pointed to the Russian National as not quite the orchestra it was since visiting the Barbican four years ago. Perhaps the focus of Pletnev’s activities is increasingly elsewhere (it will be interesting to hear what changes Principal Conductor-elect Vladimir Jurowski brings about) for him to exact the control that made earlier performances so compelling? That said, Taneyev’s music is close to his heart to an extent that what with other conductors might be a competent run-through becomes interpretation of undoubted commitment.
From the baleful opening chords of the Fourth Symphony (pace the often rather glib programme notes, the previous two symphonies have enough musical interest to justify their occasional revival), it was plain that there was a mission to be accomplished: one which, whether in the tautly-organised openingAllegro, the agitated unease of the Adagio, or the infectious élan of an ingeniously through-composed scherzo, was finely achieved on all levels. If the finale is less convincing, this is not because it loses momentum; rather that Taneyev, by bringing back the second theme from the first movement in a grandiloquent coda, places more expressive emphasis on such an inherently modest idea than it can reasonably bear. In its contrapuntal clarity and formal cohesion, however, the work is a class above the dutiful professionalism of Glazunov’s symphonies from the 1890s, and one that deserves at least a foothold in a repertoire not over-endowed with symphonic masterpieces from that decade.
Completed in 1898, it is also midway between the cantatas with which Taneyev seems consciously to have ‘bookended’ his published output. That he was 28 before composing his Opus 1 makes for no mere piece of juvenilia; indeed, in its very asceticism and spiritual tenor, “John of Damascus” – a setting of Tolstoy and a memorial tribute to Nikolai Rubinstein – is a gaunt and uncompromising statement of intent. Pletnev caught the pensiveness of the prelude, and gave the fatalistic opening choral section a Brahmsian severity. The a cappella central episode was hardly less yielding, while the ensuing fugue and prayerful close evinced a leave-taking which was no less felt for their resolute lack of pathos.
At 23 minutes, the work made its point with finely-judged restraint. Increase that to almost three times the duration, however, and the overall impact risks being diluted. It would be good to say that “On the Reading of a Psalm”, Taneyev’s expansive setting of an apocalyptic commentary on Psalm 50 by mid-nineteenth century poet Alexei Khomyakov, has an all-embracing conviction akin to that which Franz Schmidt was to invest in “The Book With Seven Seals” – an opus ultimatum similarly poised on the brink of world conflict. What results is a superbly crafted but musically two-dimensional, often flatulent epic that falls well short of the desired profundity. The overall design, with its nine sections falling into three movements of increasing length, is not matched by the memorability of the main themes as they evolve over the course of the work; nor is the sheer contrapuntal ingenuity allied to a similarly all-encompassing harmonic renewal as would generate a definable sense of momentum.
There are some fine individual sections: the thunderous opening, for instance, with its anticipation of the voice of God; the triple fugue which ends the first movement with Bachian resolve, and the correspondingly febrile depiction of natural chaos that follows. The sections for solo quartet which conclude the second movement are insufficiently contrasted to seem other than a gratuitous waste of resources, though the pacifying mezzo solo at the centre of the third movement has a movingly restrained fervency (might Prokofiev have had it in mind with the ‘Field of the Dead’ aria in “Alexander Nevsky”?) and an emotional force which the concluding chorus outdoes only in weight of decibels. This may have been the one time in which Taneyev’s heart ruled his head, but it was also the wrong one.
Marianna Tarassova was appropriately the pick of the soloists, though Roderick Williams also shone in a work he is unlikely to repeat often. An enlarged Moscow State Chamber Choir sang lustily, and if not as controlled as on its recent recording of the work (PentaTone PTC 5186 038), the Russian National forces responded with alacrity to some demonstrative conducting from Pletnev. A labour of love for him, no doubt, as it was a trial of endurance to many of those present: yet this is a work that needed revival as the final testament of a composer who – as these concerts amply reminded us – is more than of merely historical interest and whose reassessment, if it did not begin three years ago, might reasonably have started here.