Listeners who enjoy Russian fin de siècle music, who've already investigated Rachmaninov, Glazunov, Kalinnikov, Lyapunov, Lyadov, Ippolitov-Ivanov, and Scriabin, might want to try Sergey Taneyev. Although perhaps the most technically skilled and intellectually brilliant of his compositional cohort, Taneyev was unfortunately born without a gift for melody or the ability to communicate his ideas except in the most grandiloquent manner. He tends to sound like a Russian version of Vincent d'Indy with just as much counterpoint and even more bombast. Die-hard fans of Russian music of the period may want to check out this four-disc collection in the Anthology of Russian Symphony Music, containing three of Taneyev's large-scale concert works: his Concert Suite for violin and orchestra, his Symphony No. 4 in C minor, and his "At the Reading of a Psalm" Cantata, along with a substantial excerpt from his opera Orestia. Also included is Alexandr Kastalsky's 1915 cantata Brotherly Prayer for the Dead.
The performances by Evgeny Svetlanov and an unnamed Russian orchestra have plenty of verve, power, and conviction. Of the three large-scale works works by Taneyev, the Fourth Symphony comes off best, as strong- willed and sincere, if curiously forgettable, in Svetlanov's impassioned account. The Concert Suite is an effective succession of Baroque pastiche movements played with panache and vivacity by an unnamed violinist. The cantata is over-scored and over-wrought, with its choruses, double choruses, and triple fugues sounding banal and cerebral. Svetlanov and his orchestra, chorus, and soloists nevertheless turn in a performance that makes a grand and glorious noise of this essentially vulgar music, and thereby almost, but not quite, redeems it.
Vulgar is also the best word to describe Kastalsky's Brotherly Prayer for the Dead. Although masterfully executed and no doubt utterly earnest, the work for chorus, soloists, and orchestra is perhaps the first and the worst in a series of musical monuments written for those killed in the last century's two great European wars (the greatest being Britten's War Requiem, commemorating the dead of the Second World War). In the case of Kastalsky's cantata, the work memorializes the Russian, English, and Serbian dead of the First World War and was composed in "brotherly tribute to the memory of the heroes who fell in the great liberation battle against the Teutonic oppression." Kastalsky proves unable to match their martial heroism with his own musical heroism, and his cantata shows him losing his own battle with the oppressive forces of trivial themes, pompous harmonies, turgid textures, garish orchestrations, torpid tempos, and a species of emotion that will more than likely seem maudlin to audiences accustomed to the sterner yet more compassionate emotions invoked by Britten's War Requiem. It can't be said that Svetlanov and his anonymous forces don't go over the top for Kastalsky's work, with bayonets fixed, and even if they can't make it across the no-man's land of the Brotherly Prayer for the Dead, at least they expire more honorably than the work itself, which builds to a monstrously pretentious climax.