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Sergey TANEYEV (1856-1915)
String Quartet 'no.7' in E flat (1880) [38:05]
String Quartet no.5 in A, op.13 (1903) [24:10]
Carpe Diem String Quartet (Charles Wetherbee, John Ewing (violins); Korine Fujiwara (viola); Kristin Ostling (cello))
rec. AudioLab, Boise, Idaho, USA, 18-20 December 2010. DDD
NAXOS 8.573010 [62:15]

This is US-based Carpe Diem Quartet's third instalment of their recording of the complete string quartets of Sergey Taneyev (see review of volume 2).
The numbering of Taneyev's quartets is somewhat problematic, as the track-listing for this CD suggests. Only two movements of what would have been his first quartet were finished, then three complete works followed, before an 'official' no.1 was published as the composer's op.4. Four more were then published in sequence with an opus number. No.6, completed in 1905, was the last to receive one (op.19), after which Taneyev concentrated on other traditional chamber forms, until in 1911 he began a final string quartet - only to break off after two movements. In concrete terms, then, the quartet numbered '5' is actually Taneyev's eighth, whilst the one labelled here as 'no.7' is his first completed quartet.
Taneyev was a true intellectual, with Tolstoy and Rimsky-Korsakov among his closest friends, and also an ascetic - a rare Russian teetotaller! In his article on the composer in New Grove, David Brown has him down as a dry academic, describing him as "the antithesis of Glinka, for whereas the latter was possessed of a powerful and vivid imagination but was deficient in technique, Taneyev had little imaginative endowment but commanded a compositional skill unsurpassed by any Russian composer of his period." Brown is wrong in so many ways, but as far as Taneyev is concerned it is better to accept that he was no Beethoven but then to feast on the marvellous craftsmanship, intimate lyricism and show-stopping counterpoint of his string quartets. In that respect, there is no better place to start than with the youthfully effervescent 'Seventh' and the elegant, Classically-inspired Fifth.
The Carpe Diem Quartet are well known, in America at least, for their genre-crossing tendencies - their "musical passion has led them down the paths of gypsy, tango, folk, pop, rock, and jazz-inspired music". However, a strong case can be made for the thesis that quartet greatness is not possible if time and energy are dissipated on facile arrangements of music from lower levels. What PR calls 'breaking the mould' or 'pushing the limits' is really nothing more than sitting comfortably in a musical onesie to sell more tickets and CDs.
Nevertheless, whilst never sounding truly impassioned, and certainly not Russian, the Carpe Diems display a good deal of poise and commitment to Taneyev's deserving cause. For this cycle they go mano a mano with the Taneyev Quartet, whose late-1970s recordings of their eponym's quartets can be had on five volumes on the Russian Northern Flowers label. Though in splendidly remastered sound, the Taneyev's cycle is not as authoritative as might be expected - see review of vol.5 for details. Nor are the Northern Flowers discs competitive on price. Overall, then, the Carpe Diem Quartet's set is the one to have. Audio quality is very good in its way - albeit dry and not ideal for claustrophobes - and Anastasia Belina-Johnson's booklet notes are interesting and well written.
By way of curious footnote, the Quartet have, since this recording, acquired a new second violin and cellist - the same positions having changed between volumes 2 and 3. Second violin also changed between the first and second volumes. By volume 4, at least nine different musicians will be available for the collector to enjoy!
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