May 06, 2010


Taneyev: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3. Novosibirsk Academic Symphony Orchestra conducted by Thomas Sanderling. Naxos. $8.99.

Taneyev: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 4. Novosibirsk Academic Symphony Orchestra conducted by Thomas Sanderling. Naxos. $8.99.

Bruch: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2. Staatskapelle Weimar conducted by Michael Halász. Naxos. $8.99.

     There are many reasons that well-made symphonies of the 19th century have been passed over in later years. In the case of the four symphonies by Sergei Ivanovich Taneyev, the neglect is part of a more general one: the composer himself, a pupil of Tchaikovsky and Nikolai Rubinstein and teacher of Rachmaninoff and Scriabin, falls into a kind of intergenerational musical limbo, and the neglect of his symphonic works is merely a part of the lack of attention given to everything he composed. Since much of his music is quite well constructed, and since there has in recent years been increasing interest in less-known composers of the Romantic era, Taneyev is slowly emerging from obscurity – but his symphonies are nevertheless rarely heard. In fairness, it should be pointed out that part of the neglect is self-inflicted: only the fourth symphony, which Taneyev designated No. 1, was published in his lifetime (1856-1915) and given an opus number, since the composer did not deem the others sufficiently worthy. In fact, he never finished No. 2 at all, despite the urging of Tchaikovsky. Thanks to mostly strong performances by Thomas Sanderling and the Novosibirsk Academic Symphony Orchestra, it is now possible to hear all the Taneyev symphonies and judge whether both history and their composer have been fair to them.

     Taneyev was sometimes called “the Russian Brahms,” but except for some superficial harmonic similarities and the fact that Brahms too wrote four symphonies, the comparison is not a very good one. Taneyev’s symphonies lack the grandeur and the simultaneous structural rigor and innovation of those by Brahms, while also falling short of the emotionalism of Tchaikovsky – this latter characteristic not necessarily being a failing. (Like Tchaikovsky, interestingly, Taneyev wrote only one symphony in a major key.) Taneyev wrote all his symphonies between 1875 and 1898. No. 1, completed when he was 18, has some resemblance in its finale to Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2, and features themes that seem to stop and start rather than flow both in the opening movement and, more disconcertingly, in the scherzo. The finale not only sounds somewhat like Tchaikovsky’s “Little Russian” symphony but also includes a folk song later used by Stravinsky in Petrushka. Symphony No. 2 (Taneyev’s only major-key one, in B-flat) is a significantly broader, more expansive work, although Taneyev never wrote a scherzo for it and left the second movement only partially scored (the completion used by Sanderling is by Vladimir Blok). The first movement here shows skill in both polyphony and monumental orchestration, and the finale – in which timpani are prominent – is quite effective. Symphony No. 3 is broader still but, at least in this performance, suffers from a bloated-seeming first movement, which Sanderling takes at a slower tempo than the Allegro con spirito indication. The finale is this work’s best movement, featuring double canons and other contrapuntal techniques worked through with considerable skill. And No. 4 is, as Taneyev himself rightly perceived, his best symphony of all, using counterpoint to very strong effect in the first movement, employing a three-note unifying motif throughout, including a powerful and affecting Adagio and nicely flowing Scherzo (both using that three-note motto), and concluding with a movement that is grand in scope and majestic in affirmation. It remains to be seen whether any Taneyev symphony will become popular in the concert hall – but all four are certainly worthwhile experiences for listeners at home.

     The same is true of the first two of Max Bruch’s three symphonies, whose neglect is one of being overshadowed by the composer’s other works rather than involving inattention to the composer himself. Indeed, Bruch’s first violin concerto so overshadows so much of his other music that many people do not know it is the first of three. Like Taneyev’s symphonies, Bruch’s No. 1 shows some influence of Brahms – to whom, in fact, it was dedicated. It also sounds at times like works by Mendelssohn (notably in the Scherzo) and Schumann, and if it has a significant fault, it is that it never quite sounds like Bruch himself, lacking the gorgeously lyrical melodies (usually for strings) for which he is best known. Bruch had finished his overwhelmingly popular Violin Concerto No. 1 the year before he started writing this symphony in 1867, so this is in no sense a “starter” work. It is well formed, traditionally structured and effectively put together, although not especially memorable. The Symphony No. 2 of 1870 – in three movements (the last immediately following the second), without a Scherzo – is nevertheless a longer work, and its F minor key keeps it darker than No. 1 in E-flat. Bruch’s Second Symphony has more individual touches, including scoring variations among the movements (the lovely Adagio ma non troppo generally being lighter in instrumentation) and an effectively quiet ending of the first movement. Bits of Bruch’s beautifully flowing themes peek out here and there – in the violas in the finale, for example – and the work as a whole is more emotionally satisfying than the earlier symphony. Staatskapelle Weimar plays these symphonies with warmth and fervor, and Michael Halász conducts with a good sense of control and balance. Like Taneyev’s symphonies, Bruch’s first two (as well as the third, for that matter) are worthy of being heard more often, even if they are scarcely at the pinnacle of the Romantic symphony.

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