Obscure Russian composers provide gems for Boulder Piano Quartet

Music by Sergei Taneyev and Anton Rubinstein at The Academy

By Peter Alexander Dec. 11 at 6:45 p.m.

There is not a lot of music written for piano quartet.

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Boulder Piano Quartet

No, not four pianos; the “piano quartet” is an ensemble of piano with violin, viola and cello. As such, it falls between the trio of piano, violin and cello, for which there is a rich repertoire, and the quintet of piano with strings in different combinations that became a major genre for Romantic composers.

To be sure, Mozart wrote works for piano quartet, and other composers have followed since. Still, there are not that many pieces for the combination, so groups like the Boulder Piano Quartet— David Korevaar, piano; Charles Wetherbee, violin; Matthew Dane, viola; and Thomas Heinrich, cello—sometimes turn to obscure composers to fill out their programs.

That is indeed the case for their next performance, Friday at the Academy in Boulder, featuring one work each by composers that Korevaar refers to as “the obscure Russians.”

Make no mistake, though: obscure does not translate to unskilled. The two composers—Sergei Taneyev and Anton Rubinstein—were not only among the most prominent Russian musicians and music educators of the 19thcentury, they were highly skilled composers. Taneyev was so skilled writing counterpoint that he was known as “The Russian Bach.” A close friend of Tchaikovsky, he is most remembered for his extensive chamber music output, including his one Piano Quartet

Rubinstein, founder of the St. Petersburg Conservatory of Music was one of the greatest piano virtuosos of the 19thcentury. He is best known for his showy piano pieces, but he also wrote 20 operas, six symphonies, and a host of chamber pieces—including again a single Piano Quartet

“Both Rubinstein and Taneyev represent what was known somewhat disparagingly in Russia as the ‘cosmopolitan school’ of Russian composition,” Korevaar says. “That is to say, they were not nationalists”—meaning they followed the standard European classical models of their times and did not incorporate real or imitated Russian folk music into their compositions. This is in contrast to other Russian musicians, including Borodin and Mussorgsky.

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Sergei Taneyev

“Taneyev’s music is very attractive,” Korevaar says. “It’s also very difficult to play. He’s extraordinarily demanding of his players. The string parts and the piano writing are formidably complex.

“He also loves to show off his contrapuntal acumen, so the last movement of the quartet is filled with all kinds of contrapuntal combinations. It includes a fugue, and the coda brings back every theme from the quartet and combines them in various clever ways.”

But there is more to Taneyev than complexity and counterpoint, Korevaar says. For one thing, he begins the Quartet in a particularly engaging way, “like ballet or opera where something dramatic is already happening,” before introducing the first major theme.

“I have to say, he wrote good tunes,” Korevaar adds. “[The Quartet] is long, but it’s worthwhile long, not tedious long. The last movement is very busy and exciting all the time, so it keeps us all moving.”

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Anton Rubinstein

Korevaar is equally excited to play the Rubinstein Quartet, which he did not know before learning it for Friday’s concert. “I’m very excited we’re playing it because it’s so beautiful,” he says. “It’s a marvelous example of mid-19th-century Romantic voice. It’s very mainstream, and so the last movement you would never have any reason to think it was written by a Russian.”

Rubinstein’s own virtuosity made his piano writing challenging. “Rubinstein was famous for having very large hands,” Korevaar says. “He does write for the piano in a way that is representative of big-handed composers—there’s a lot more [finger] extensions than some other composers would be using. But in the end, I think it’s beautiful piece.

“It’s kind of a gem.”

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Boulder Piano Quartet
David Korevaar, piano; Charles Wetherbee, violin; Matthew Dane, viola; and Thomas Heinrich, cello

Sergei Taneyev: Quartet in E major for piano and strings
Anton Rubinstein: Piano in C major for piano and strings

7 p.m., Friday, Dec. 14
The Academy, 970 Aurora Ave., Boulder
(Entrance at 833 10thSt.)

Free; RSVP in advance to ande@theacademyboulder.com

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