“Sergey Taneyev composed his three piano chamber works in the years 1902-11, on either side of his 50th birthday, when his days as director of the Moscow Conservatoire were well behind him but when he still commanded nationwide respect for his gifts as pianist, administrator and craftsman-composer. These pieces were in the first instance vehicles for his own concert performances, and the piano parts are accordingly massive. Compositionally the writing is unfailingly well wrought and resourceful: by no means entirely confined to middle-ofthe- road tastefulness, yet rarely, if ever, touched by the kind of distinction evinced by his great pupils, Rachmaninov and Scriabin.
At times, especially in the Piano Quartet, it is like being in the presence of a very large and likeable student, who has never quite found his own voice but who remains intent on getting higher and higher marks for the same type of exercise. Yet at the same time the music has an undeniable sweep, and some of the ideas evidently lodged in the minds of future generations – compare the opening bars of the Quintet with Prokofiev's First Violin Sonata, for instance, or the opening of the Piano Trio with the third movement of Shostakovich's First Violin Concerto.
There is a certain Elgarian gruffness here and there, and a liking for fulminating, lowlying textures that may be off-putting at first encounter but which exerts its own particular charm on closer acquaintance.
The Piano Quintet is the latest and grandest of the three works, its structural layout and textures being indebted in just about equal measure to Tchaikovsky and César Franck.
The initially consoling second subject is destined for heroic things in a grandstand résumé at the end of the finale, and on repeated hearings it's a pleasure to discover its unassuming beginnings. In between, the Scherzo has that touch of fairytale magic that came so naturally to most of the great Russians while the slow movement daringly strips down to a passacaglia theme on the cello before dressing up impressively again. Pletnev and his dream-team string colleagues are passionate advocates, as they are for the more classically conceived (or at least more Schumannesque) Trio.
The strings are placed rather far forward, and the acoustic is a fraction too dry for comfort. It's a tribute to the Barbican Piano Trio that they hardly ever find themselves outdone in crusading passion, or indeed outplayed technically, by their bigger-name rivals. James Kirkby is as sensitive as Pletnev to the oases of calm in the slow movement of the Trio, where the piano holds the stage in moments of quiet rapture. By contrast, the Piano Quartet launches immediately into its ecstatic stride, risking anticlimax but rescuing itself by constant renewed initiatives. Violist James Boyd makes his presence strongly felt in the dark-hued slow movement. The Dutton recording strays a fraction the other side of the ideal from DG by giving us a little too much of the room acoustic of St George's, Brandon Hill, Bristol; but once again it is perfectly serviceable.”