FORT WORTH Russians are always amazed that Americans do not know the music of Sergei Taneyev because he is one of the most frequently played composers in their country. Just knowing that his teacher was Tchaikovsky and one of his students was Rachmaninoff should whet the appetite of those who love overripe Russian romanticism.
The Mimir Chamber Music Festival programmed Taneyev’s Piano Quintet in G minor, Op. 30, a prime example of his work, Tuesday night. Texas Christian University’s PepsiCo Hall rang to the rafters as the Mimir artists gave it their all.
The program opened with the crystalline clarity of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations on a simple aria stated at the beginning. The work was arranged for string trio by the Russian violinist and composer Dmitry Sitkovetsky. The piece was originally written for harpsichord. With a string trio, the individual voices sound out.
This piece always feels too long yet Bach’s craft keeps it endlessly fascinating. Violinist Frank Huang, violist Kirsten Docter and cellist Brant Taylor used minimal vibrato, and it warmed the sound. The cello was too loud almost the whole time, but that could have been an acoustical anomaly. Pizzicato appeared in later variations, but the effect was a welcome change. The big final variation would have made a better closer than Bach’s idea to repeat the aria.
The Taneyev quintet is inconceivably difficult to play, especially the piano part, so a major artist is usually required. In April 2011, Chamber Music International gave it a red-hot performance featuring Joyce Yang, the 2005 Cliburn competition silver medalist. Here, it was in the able hands of Alessio Bax, who played with all the required verve and virtuosity. Violinists Jun Iwasaki and Curt Thompson, violist Docter and cellist Taylor joined Bax for 50 passionate minutes.
This piece stands at the end of the road for over-the-top romanticism, and the musicians played with all the unrestrained ecstasy it deserves. It got too loud too often, but how else can you play such music?
It is the ultimate in chromatic romanticism. Hearing it, you can understand how composers at the time felt they couldn’t push tonality any further, so they had to do something different. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was a few years away, and Schoenberg’s atonal experiments were already beginning.
Everything may have changed after this quintet, but pieces like this, played with such fierce abandon, are a milepost in music history rather than a stylistic tombstone. This quintet will always continue to thrill audiences. As it did on Tuesday.