I will admit up front that I had not been particularly impressed nor won over by any of the orchestral music of Sergey Taneyev (1856-1915) I had heard previously. On the other hand I have been mightily impressed by much of his voluminous output of chamber music. This CD, however, has made me rethink my blanket assumption that Taneyev's orchestral output is well-crafted but bland. The major work on this CD is the 20 minute long overture (1889) to his only opera, 'Oresteia', the compelling tragedy of the House of Atreus from Greek mythology. Taneyev's overture, written six years before the completion of the opera, has primarily had a life as a separate concert work; indeed, he decided not to use it for performances of the opera proper. The Overture limns the narrative of the Oresteia with its themes of adultery and murder. And the music is powerfully evocative. I'd never heard it before and was so stunned by its power that I immediately listened to it three times in a row, before going on to the other pieces on this disc. There are other recordings of the Overture, including performances led by Ashkenazy, Neeme Järvi, and Rozhdestvensky, which I have not heard. But this performance by Thomas Sanderling (the son of famous conductor Kurt Sanderling) is simply wonderful. And the playing of the Novosibirsk Academic Symphony Orchestra, little-known outside Russia, is spectacular.
Included is also the five-minute Entr'acte from the third act of the opera called 'The Temple of Apollo at Delphi'. This is a scene where Orestes who, after killing his mother, has attempted suicide but is prevented from dying by The Furies. He goes to the Temple of Apollo to ask the god to save him. This music is just as powerful as the Overture but with episodes of serene repose. Gorgeous stuff.
The 'Adagio in C Major' (1775) was written when Teneyev was still studying at the Moscow Conservatory. It is peaceful, songful and reminiscent of Tchaikovsky. The 17-minute 'Overture on a Russian Theme' (1882) is based on a Russian folksong that had been collected by Rimsky-Korsakoff. Taneyev did not often use Russian-sounding melodies and this work shows his ability to dissect and vary such material. His masterful counterpoint is in clear evidence. Nonetheless, for me the piece comes close to sounding like an academic exercise.
The 'Cantata on Pushkin's "Exegi Monumentum"' (1880), whose final line is 'And I will be famed so long as at least a single poet/Remains alive under the moon', was written for the unveiling of a Pushkin monument attended by such worthies as Dostoevsky and Turgenev. It is a celebratory four-part chorus with simple orchestral accompaniment and minimal polyphony. 'Canzona for Clarinet and Strings' (1883), played here beautifully by clarinetist Stanislav Jankovsky, is lyrical and serene.
The final work, 'Overture in D Minor' (1875), earned Taneyev a gold medal in his final year at the Conservatory. Again, it sounds a bit like the full-throated Tchaikovsky with masterful orchestration, brooding melancholy and soaring melodies.
There is no question that the best music here are the two 'Oresteia' pieces, but the other works, while not at the very top level, give us an idea of the development of Taneyev's art from his earliest years. This disc certainly makes me wonder if a recording of the full opera 'Oresteia' will ever come to pass. One hopes so.