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March 17, 2006

The Sound and The Furies - Sergei Taneyev's The Oresteia in St. Petersburg

Posted by David Conway

Sergei Taneyev's The Oresteia (concert performance)
The Academic Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra
with the choir and soloists of the Mussorgsky Opera House
conducted by Andrei Anikhanov
Philharmonia Concert Hall, St. Petersburg
14th March 2006

David Conway experiences a Russian take on the Oresteia by a talented but neglected composer.

In June 1915, Sergei Taneyev died after catching a cold at the funeral of his pupil Scriabin. Scriabin himself had died of septicaemia following a wasp sting on the lip. It could thus be said that a single insect had brought about the death of two of Russia's outstanding musicians.

Now in 2006 we have another (almost) uncelebrated musical anniversary, Taneyev's 150th birthday. A favourite pupil of Tchaikovsky, an acquaintance in Paris in the 1880s of Turgenev, Zola and Flaubert, Taneyev appeared in the 1890s as one of the leading artistic lights of his generation. With a profound knowledge of musical technique (he wrote a treatise on invertible counterpoint), a dedication to Russian church music, and an allegiance to the Western European romantic style, he was held high in the esteem of his contemporary Russian cognoscenti. His relatively rare premieres (for he was ruthlessly self-critical) were social as well as musical events, with notables such as Lev Tolstoy likely to be found in the audience (although Taneyev's later obsession for Tolstoy's wife Sofia became an inspiration for the novella The Kreutzer Sonata). Amongst Taneyev's pupils were the notable pianist/composers Scriabin and Medtner (the latter, like his teacher, also doomed to obscurity, dying forgotten in Golders Green in 1952).

Unfortunately Taneyev followed a long-standing Russian musical tradition – (practised by, for example, Mussorgsky and Borodin) – an addiction to alcohol. By the time of his death, after many fallow years, the course of Russian music had significantly changed from the German-oriented school advocated by his teacher Nikolai Rubinstein and Nikolai's more famous brother Anton, back towards the nationalist ideals of an earlier generation. The period 1910 to 1913 saw, for example, the premières of Stravinsky's Firebird, Pulcinella and Rite of Spring, as well as Prokofiev's first two Piano Concerti. The way forward for Russian music proved to lay not through grafting Russian motifs on to a Central European consensus idiom, but instead through exploring Russian musical idiosyncrasies. Without the mystic fervour of Scriabin to drive it competitively, the "Moscow" school of Tchaikovsky and Taneyev lingered on only as a backwater in the careers of Glière, Grechaninov and Glazunov, and in the tinsel fame of the moody and artistically-challenged Rachmaninoff.

Taneyev's reputation, such as it is, rests on a very small core of compositions. His early works he repudiated. Some of his later works do little to advance his cause – for example, the strangely amorphous Concert Suite for violin and orchestra which is not quite a concerto. Many of his later works were part abandoned and some still remain unpublished – of eleven string quartets, only six appeared in his lifetime and two are incomplete. Certainly his most accessible music is to be found in his chamber works, in the idiom of which Anton Rubinstein, Brahms and Tchaikovsky can be identified. In this music, unburdened by his learnedness, the individual spirit of the composer is clearly evident, often reaching towards the ecstatic harmonies and rhapsodic rhythms that became Scriabin's trademarks.

It was therefore with both interest and reservation that I attended the concert performance in St. Petersburg, arranged as a sesquicentenary tribute, of Tanyev's only opera, The Oresteia. Even in the naming of this work, which the composer felt to be his masterpiece, there is evidence of his endemic uncertainty – for he himself called it not an opera but a "musical trilogy". This was not a complete performance – which would have taken, it appears, about four or more hours. Not included were the separate concert overture based on themes from the opera (about 20 minutes in itself, and which Tchaikovsky premiered in 1889, six years before the opera itself was staged), and about half of each of the opera's first two sections.

Taneyev boldly chose to set the entire trilogy of The Oresteia, one play to an act. Whilst one can appreciate his sensitivity to Aeschylus's original, this inevitably means that the dramatic impact of Taneyev's setting is considerably less than Strauss's Elektra, where the librettist von Hoffmanstahl was able to elaborate a far more incisive account of the decisive central events. Taneyev's version, ending with an extended setting of Orestes's trial and the epiphany of Pallas Athena makes even the last act of Fidelio appear dramatically dynamic. To this extent I rather feel that those who were sufficiently intrepid to attend (the hall was rather less than half full) probably benefited from hearing the work as a cantata. Much as I enjoyed the music, had I been watching it as an opera, I would have been sorely tempted to leave early.

This was not only because of the limitations of the libretto, but because of Taneyev's inability, when all is said and done, to convincingly transcend them by powers of musical imagination. Time and again I heard wonderful – even thrilling – passages. The march for chorus and orchestra with which the concert opened, from the Agamemnon act, had an almost Elgarian grandeur, as did the closing passages of the concert featuring Pallas Athena. The prophecies of Cassandra and the murder of Agamemnon evoked Mussorgsky in capturing psychological stress and breakdown. Elsewhere there was evident the influence of Wagner – notably (and not really appropriately) the duet between Orestes and Elektra in Act II could not but summon memories of Siegmund and Sieglinde in Act I of Die Walküre. But time and again these high spots were fatally undermined by prosaic or cliché follow ups – a one/two perfect cadence, or a rising crescendo scale on the strings, ending in a percussion thump, that was old hat even when Liszt was writing his symphonic poems in the 1850s.

The only conclusion to be drawn is that Taneyev was just too smart for his own good on the detail. A little less concern for the invertible counterpoint, and a broader view of the dramatic and emotional sweep required by the topic, would have been more convincing. The orchestra under Anikhanov's direction threw themselves into the music's more engaging purple passages with enthusiasm, and amongst the solo singers Natiali Biryukova (mezzo-soprano) was an appropriately brooding Clytemnestra and Dmitri Karpov a robust Orestes (perhaps a bit too cheerful in general demeanour for one hunted down by the Furies).

The only recording I have found is an ancient Russian radio broadcast of 1958 recently transferred to CD. The orchestra and choir are a bit weedy on this but the great Russian mezzo Sofia Probrazhenskaya make a meal out of Clytemnestra (understandably given the character's Atreid connections). Perhaps a modern record company will take on the challenge of bringing this flawed but fascinating work to a wider audience. I ended the evening wanting to discover more about Taneyev and his music, so as a commemorative occasion the concert must be accounted a success.

David Conway's previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.


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There was a decent recording of the entire opera on Deutsche Grammophon LPs some years ago (Choir & orchestra of the Byelorussian state opera- and ballet company. Tatiana Kolomijzeva, cond.). It is a bit sad to see poor Sergei Ivanovich still being criticised for being 'too learned' after all these years. Anyone that ever took in this opera, or any of his sublime chamber music, should have to eat those words.

Posted by: Ilja Nieuwland at March 13, 2007 10:42 PM
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There was also a full stereo recording, though I don't know how complete it was, released on cds in 1978 by Melidoya and distributed by Olympia, but this version is sadly long out of print and I have not been able to find it. From what excerpts of the opera we do have, I fully agree that either the Melidoya release should be reissued, the DG version upgraded to cds, or a modern concert version made.

Posted by: Larry Kinsley at March 28, 2008 05:55 AM
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Contrary to Mr Conway's assertion, Taneyev did not follow 'a long-standing Russian musical tradition [of] an addiction to alcohol'. Quite the reverse, in fact - Taneyev was teetotal and did not smoke either; probably the only Russian in the 19th century who was free of both vices!

Posted by: Lionel Harrison at December 3, 2009 09:39 PM
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