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8.223497 - ARENSKY: Suites for 2 Pianos Nos. 1-5

Anton Stepanovich Arensky (1861–1906)
Suites for Two Pianos Nos. 1–5


Gifted son of a cellist doctor father and a pianist mother, pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov in Petersburg, the teacher of Rachmaninov and Scriabin, Arensky was born in Novgorod. Admired by Tchaikovsky and Taneyev, he was appointed in 1882 professor of harmony and counterpoint at the Moscow Conservatoire, and from 1889 to 1893 was a member of the Council of the Synodal School of Church Music in Moscow. Conductor of the Russian Choral Society (1888–95), he became, on the recommendation of Balakirev, Director of the Imperial Chapel in St. Petersburg in 1894, remaining until 1901.

A Moscow contemporary, Mikhail Bukinik, fellow student of Rachmaninov, recalled him as “mobile, nervous, with a wry smile on his clever, half Tartar face, always joking or snarling: all feared his laughter and adored his talent”. Rosina Lhevinne “remembered him as being shy and rather weak”. In his last years “a strange man, drunken, debauched, flighty and unpredictably irascible” (Faubion Bowers), unreliable in meeting commitments or commissions, he died in his forties. “The composer Arensky died a few days ago”, wrote the young Prokofiev to his father (1st March 1906), “his case has been hopeless since last autumn. He wrote [three] operas and many other things, lots of them beautiful… [Liadov] reprimanded [me] rather sharply for not having gone to Arensky’s funeral”. In his Memoirs, Rimsky-Korsakov, having previously called him “our well-known talented composer”, was ungenerous:

According to all testimony, his life had run a dissipated course between wine and card-playing… [On retiring from the Imperial Chapel, with an annual pension of 6,000 roubles] he did much work at composition, but that is just where he began to burn the candle at both ends. Revels, card-playing, health undermined by this mode of living, galloping consumption as the final result, dying at Nice, and death at last in Finland… By the nature of his talent and his tastes as composer he was the closest approximation to [Anton] Rubinstein, but he was inferior in the force of talent for composition, though in instrumentation, as the child of more modern times, he outdistanced [Rubinstein]. In his youth Arensky had not escaped entirely my own influence; later he fell under that of Tchaikovsky. He will be soon forgotten.

Over half a century later, in his Memories and Commentaries (1959), Stravinsky, another Rimsky-Korsakov pupil, took issue with this indictment:

In all that concerned Arensky, Rimsky-Korsakov was, I thought, unjustifiably harsh and unkind. He criticised Arensky’s music captiously and unnecessarily, and a comment about it, which he allowed to be printed after Arensky’s death, was cruel: “Arensky did very little, and that little will soon be forgotten” [misquoted, sic]… Arensky had been friendly, interested, and helpful to me… and in spite of Rimsky I always liked him and at least one of his works—the famous [First] Piano Trio [in D minor, 1894, composed in memory of the cellist Carl Davidov]. He meant something to me also by the mere fact of his being a direct personal link with Tchaikovsky.

The popular modern view of Arensky is negative. “Representative in a minor way of the Russian cosmopolitan school”, identifying little with the (Balakirev) nationalists, and with a style “fluent, agreeable, but effete” was how Edward Sackville-West and Desmond Shawe-Taylor dismissed him in the 1951 Record Guide. R.A. Leonard describes him an eclectic lyricist. Bowers calls him a “petty” man who “suffered from having too much talent unsupported by genius”, whose dislike of, and refusal / failure to understand, the “original” Scriabin discredited his place in history and “fuelled the engines of scandal in its day”. And in his Art of Piano Playing, Heinrich Neuhaus, speaks witheringly of a “drawing-room fashion à la Rebikov or Arensky”.

Not all, however, have been voices of dissent. Viktor Belayev, in Cobbett’s Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music (1929), believed that Arensky “occupies a great place in the history of Russian music—far greater, indeed, than most people are aware, and the full significance of his contribution is not yet generally realised”. And he singled out the late Piano Quintet, Op. 51 (1900) as “a masterpiece”, a sentiment echoed by Cobbett who says of its Scherzo that “it sparkles like diamonds in the sun”. In The New Grove (1980) David Brown admits the eclecticism of Arensky’s language—from Chopin to Schumann via Mendelssohn—yet at the same time confirms that he “could produce beautifully turned keyboard miniatures”. “His ready flow of lyrical, often sentimental melody, and his easy command of keyboard textures,” he adds, “equipped him splendidly to be a composer of songs in the romance manner that dominated Russian song in the nineteenth century”. Like Tchaikovsky, he was capable of profound elegy.

The Arensky catalogue is dominated by vocal and choral settings, together with a variety of piano works spanning a period from the early 1880s (the Six Canonic Pieces Op. 1 and Six Pieces Op. 2) to 1905 (the Twelve Studies Op. 74), but he also wrote for the stage. He left concertos for piano and violin and a pair of symphonies, and his chamber music included two piano trios and two string quartets—the slow movement of the Second being the well-known Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky later arranged for string orchestra. His books on harmony and form, published in the 1890s, survived into the early years of the Soviet system.

Expanding an under-nourished repertoire and calling for a kind of virtuoso duo partnership scarcely existent at the end of the nineteenth century, Arensky’s Five Suites for two pianos excited interest in their time. When, at César Cui’s request, the second (or was it the first?) was played by Josef and Rosina Lhevinne in Moscow’s Hall of the Nobility during the 1898–99 season, “the success”, Rosina recalled, “was a very unusual one—not because of our playing, and not because of the composition, but because of the monstrous idea of having two pianos on the stage”.

Self-contained individual movements of contrasted tempo (and occasionally regional syntax) strung together in different keys, not symphonic impulse, is the creative rationale underlying Arensky’s suites. Thus the first consists of a Romance in G minor, a once-celebrated Waltz in C (familiar from early piano-roll cuts and 78s with Gabrilowitsch and Bauer) and a Polonaise in G (famous for its spectacular chordal and double-octave close). The Second, published as Silhouettes, is made up of five tableaux: The Scholar (C minor); The Coquette (C major); Polichinelle (= Pulcinella, the deformed bachelor who chased pretty girls of the commedia dell’arte; E); The Dreamer (A-flat); The Dancer (C minor/major). The third is a set of nine character variations: Theme (C): (i) Dialogue; (ii) Valse; (iii) Marche triomphale; (iv) Menuet (G); (v) Gavotte (C minor); (vi) Scherzo (C); (vii) Marche funèbre (A minor); (viii) Nocturne (A); (ix) Polonaise (C). The fourth—dedicated to Vera Siloti, the wife of Alexander Siloti, Rachmaninov’s cousin—acknowledges the four-movement scheme of the Rachmaninov suites: Prélude (D-flat); Romance (A-flat minor/major); The Dream (E); Finale (C-sharp minor/D-flat major). The baroque intricacies, albeit simply expressed, of the eight-movement Suite in Canon-Form (“Children’s Suite”)—Prélude (Canon by augmentation, A); Aria (Canon at the 2nd, A minor); Scherzino (Canon at the 3rd, C); Gavotte (Canon at the 4th, G); Elégie (Canon at the 5th, D minor); Romanze (Canon at the 6th, F); Intermezzo (Canon at the 7th, A minor); Alla polacca (Canon at the 8th, A)—confirm Arensky, life-long contrapuntalist.

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