Taneyev Festival series – 16, 19 & 23 January 2002

Photograph of Sergei Ivanovich Taneyev

String Quintet No.1 in G, Op.14
Pekka Kuusisto & Arisa Fujita (violins), Rachel Roberts (viola), Steven Isserlis & Daniel Muller-Schott (cellos)
Piano Trio in A minor, Op.50
Ivry Gitlis (violin), Steven Isserlis (cello) & Nelson Goerner (piano)
16 January 2002, Wigmore Hall, London

Canzona & Dance No.2 in B minor
James Clark (violin) & Nelson Goerner (piano)
Julius Isserlis
Steven Isserlis (cello) & Nelson Goerner (piano)
String Trio in E flat, Op.31
Arisa Fujita (violin), Rachel Roberts (viola) & Steven Isserlis (cello)
Trio Elegiaque No.2 in D minor, Op.9
Vadim Repin (violin), Steven Isserlis (cello) & Nelson Goerner (piano)
19 January 2002, Wigmore Hall, London
String Quintet in A major, Op.39
Pekka Kuusisto & Vadim Repin (violin), Lawrence Power (viola), Steven Isserlis & Daniel Muller-Schott (cello)
String Quartet No.2 in A minor, Op.35
Pekka Kuusisto (violin), Lawrence Power (viola), Steven Isserlis & Daniel Muller-Schott (cellos)
Piano Quintet No.2 in G minor, Op.30
Pekka Kuusisto & Vadim Repin (violins), Lawrence Power (viola), Steven Isserlis (cello) & Mikhail Pletnev (piano)
23 January 2002, Wigmore Hall, London

Reviewed by: Mark E Croasdale

Reviewed: 23 January, 2002
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Sergei Ivanovich Taneyev’s music has not yet reached a wide audience. On the basis of the music included in this festival, and the talent ready to perform it, he should become an essential part of the chamber music repertoire.

The first two movements of his String Quintet No.1, which started the Festival, worked especially well and the ensemble playing was marvellous; in some of the contrapuntal passages the playing was euphoric. Structurally, Taneyev’s Quintet is a late nineteenth-century piece but its chromaticism presages the twentieth. Taneyev was a master contrapuntalist; the cathedral-like serenity fleetingly apprehended amongst passages of gaiety and lightness speaks of a master of contrasts too. Kuusisto’s playing stood out, not only through his leadership but also in his exuberance.

The Quintet is quite long and meandered towards the end. The lengthy third movement, a set of variations, although dominated by quick tempos, began to wear, even if some individual variations are remarkably individual; Taneyev clearly enjoyed the technical aspects of his craft. Out of the gavotte theme, he creates a march, a waltz, a nocturne and a duet for two cellos.

Nelson Goerner salvaged what could have been a mediocre performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio and turned it into something more than a face-saving exercise. His was a supreme effort to juggle his own conception and the irregular string playing on either side of him. Straining at the printed score, however, is never a healthy occupation especially in such demanding music. He had to try and decipher the morass of twisted strings amongst which he found himself and which was at such odds with the printed score. Understandably, there were occasions when he got it wrong: descending scales were rather uneven in the second movement’s third variation, and, in the ninth variation, the ascending arpeggios were clipped at the top and perfunctory. However, he did have control over the music, not only shaping the melodic lines but also bringing a sense of balance to the spectacle. In this respect Isserlis played a lighter role, apparently preferring the shade to the fierce glare to which Gitlis exposed himself. Isserlis played very quietly. Whether he was trying to limit the damage caused by Gitlis’s sharp tones or had spent his energies in the first half is a moot point. Gitlis was too individualistic, eccentric and solo-minded. His portamento and rubato became irritating and his tone, sharp and thin, ricocheted scratchily off the Wigmore’s marbled walls. There were only rare moments of ensemble playing; Isserlis and Goerner made more of an attempt but there was throughout a lack of pathos. [Not to this listener: it was great that 80-year-old Gitlis was in town. Yes, he’s wilful but he belongs to a generation that freely interpreted; good that he and his personality can still be witnessed – Music Editor.]The central concert in this set of three afforded the opportunity to hear seldom-played chamber music of lesser-known Russian composers.

Medtner is a beautiful melodist who uses rhythm intensely to reveal, in the second Canzona & Dance, a troubled, unsettling mood. Time and again, James Clarke’s soaring sonorities were brought back and tethered to the piano only to break free again. The reverie was disturbed when Goerner’s full-toned coaxing gave way to a heavy hand and Clarke’s dubious lower-register intonation. The vigorous Dance that followed had folk qualities enhanced through syncopation. The required edge evaporated though through lack of sustained empathy between the players and a lazy arpeggio technique from Clarke.

Goerner and Isserlis drifted into a pearl of idyllic melancholy, managing subtle changes to the oft-repeated melody in this momentary thought from Scriabin’s early years. In fact, were it not for the giveaway piano part with its repeated right-hand chords and melody shared between the high and middle registers, then this Romance could have been penned by any number of composers of the time.

Then another plaintive melody to introduce Ballade by Isserlis’s grandfather, Julius, its mournful Tchaikovskian theme raising Ballade above the salon. Fast and frenetic sections with arpeggios suggesting Debussy stole into the sombre mood, Isserlis proving what a top-rate musician he is by holding everything together with responsive and pulsating rhythmic playing.

An exuberant performance of Taneyev’s E flat String Trio followed. Chamber music generally and the string trio in particular affords individuals a chance to shine and groups to develop rapport. This trio surpassed all expectations with its exuberance and contrapuntal virtuosity. The ’Allegro con brio’ employed a brisk tempo, bustling with imitation. Fujita was particularly melodic, displaying a huge range of dynamics. Her enthusiasm was so rapturous that on the high notes she stretched and straightened her back to the point that it appeared she was about to stand up. In the few contemplative moments she submerged into the chair introspectively. Isserlis played wonderfully, sometimes too subtlety and was lost momentarily from aural view. After the second movement, an effervescent scherzino, comes an emotional, reflective rather than sentimental, ’Adagio’ in which Isserlis’s expansive range of timbre stood out from the sonorous chordal playing; the trio rounded off with a spirited, lively ’Presto’.

The first movement of Rachmaninov’s Trio Elegiaque No.2 is a resolute ’Allegro’ alternating lyricism and fury with a desolate descending theme. Goerner coped superbly and unostentatiously with the difficult piano part but flagged a little in trying to keep those torpor-ridden slower passages moving along. In their duo passages, Repin and Isserlis complimented one another, playing perfectly in time and not trying to outshine the other. In the loudest passages all three players were dynamically equal. Goerner, despite displaying considerable power, did not drown his colleagues in those unfathomable and tormented Russian depths. The first movement’s languid lyricism and physical fury gives way to the second movement’s mobile happiness and pondering rumination. The descending-note motto returns in the perfunctory and short-lived third movement preceded by a piano cadenza, for that is what it is when the work is viewed as a whole, executed by Goerner somewhat matter-of-fact.

The final concert in the Taneyev Festival introduced Glazunov and Arensky.

Glazunov’s String Quintet in A major is a quiet, unostentatious and ephemeral piece, ambling along in the first movement. Not for the first time, Kuusisto outshone Repin in tone. Lawrence Power played particularly well, introducing the scherzo’s theme with very quiet pizzicati that sounded wonderful, rustic and carefree, more teasing than humorous and none the worse for it. The ’Andante sostenuto’ enjoyed Muller-Schott’s rich tone. The finale maintained bucolic charm, one of the few times that dynamics rose above forte.

More than any other piece in this Festival, the A minor String Quartet of Arensky (violin, viola and two cellos) is continuously mournful and sombre; it overflows with inconsolable lamentation. The introduction to the slow first movement is based on a chant from the Russian Orthodox Church – very atmospheric and exquisitely balanced, as is the incantational third movement. A common thread in this Festival’s music is a ’Theme and variations’; Arensky continued this tradition, this time a tune taken from Tchaikovsky. If the outer movements allowed the players to demonstrate their ensemble skills, then these seven variations highlighted their individuality. In variation two, Muller-Schott played a soulful melody over a tense accompaniment, and Isserlis performed miracles with sustained passages of pizzicato and legato passages, which looked and sounded effortless.

Fittingly, the composer from whom the Festival took its name ended this series. Mikhail Pletnev sounded out a long bass melody, slowly and majestically, to begin Taneyev’s Piano Quintet No.2. In the faster main section, the musicians peerlessly made use of subtle timbres in those passages where Taneyev has arranged the instruments in different combinations of register. This refreshing movement was marked by some exuberantly loud passages in which everyone played their heart out, Pletnev’s rounded tone complementing rather than dominating; the ensemble playing was superlative.

In the two fast movements, the scherzo and the vivacious finale, Taneyev demonstrated his ingenuity and creativity in transforming thematic material. The scherzo bounded along with irrepressible joyfulness, Pletnev’s skills on full view as he dispatched a rippling glissandi one moment and a dextrous passage the next, the group negotiating syncopated passages with ease; no surprise they chose to play this movement again as an encore. What the scherzo exhibited in humour, the finale displayed in frenetic euphoria. When the ’big tune’ arrived, everyone played it ardently – it was a wonderful end to a great festival of music, which had been masterminded by Steven Isserlis.

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