About this Recording
8.570526 - ARENSKY, A.: Piano Concerto / Ryabinin Fantasia / To the Memory of Suvorov / Symphonic Scherzo (Scherbakov, Russian Philharmonic, Yablonsky)

Anton Stepanovich Arensky (1861–1906)
Piano Concerto in F minor, Op. 2 • Fantasia on Russian Folksongs, Op. 48
To the Memory of Suvorov • Symphonic Scherzo


There are relatively few composers who can count a piano concerto as one of their earliest works. Arensky’s Opus 2 is particularly remarkable for coming from a country whose piano concerto tradition had hardly begun: Anton Rubinstein began his five piano concertos in the 1850s, (the same decade as Balakirev’s first incomplete attempt) and the two piano concertos of Tchaikovsky from the 1870s form the only significant Russian models for Arensky’s own youthful work. It is all the more extraordinary that Russia was soon to produce a rich crop of works in concerto form which were to include important achievements by Rachmaninov and Prokofiev, with the last two composers’ earliest piano concertos also written in their adolescence.

Arensky belonged to the generation of composers that included Glazunov, Gretchaninov and Lyadov, who came to prominence in the closing decade of the nineteenth century. Between 1879 and 1882 he studied under Rimsky-Korsakov at the St Petersburg Conservatory, an institution founded by Anton Rubinstein only two decades earlier.After completing his training, and winning a gold medal, Arensky took up a teaching appointment at the Moscow Conservatory where, as one of its youngest professors, his pupils in his harmony and counterpoint class included Rachmaninov, Scriabin and Glière. It was during his time in Moscow, where Tchaikovsky’s encouragement was particularly beneficial, that he gained attention as a conductor of the Russian Choral Society and in 1889 he was appointed to the council of the Synodal School of Church Music. Arensky’s creative energies were widely diverse during this time and included two symphonies, a number of chamber and choral works and his first opera: A Dream on the Volga, which enjoyed considerable success at its 1891 première.

In 1895 Arensky returned to St Petersburg when he succeeded Balakirev to the directorship of the Imperial Chapel, relinquishing this post six years later with a pension of 6000 roubles. From this time until his untimely death in Finland from tuberculosis aged 44, his work as a composer, pianist and conductor was compromised by a life-style which Rimsky-Korsakov described as ‘a dissipated course between wine and card-playing’. Despite the further observation that Arensky would ‘soon be forgotten’ his Variations on a theme by Tchaikovsky is still part of the orchestral repertory and occasional performances of his Piano Trio in D minor confirm his innate craftsmanship and lyric gifts.

The Piano Concerto dates from Arensky’s final year at the St Petersburg Conservatory and shows a remarkable precociousness and effortless facility. It opens with a taut Lisztian figure from the orchestra that serves as an introductory motif and foreshadows part of the second theme. A rhetorical flourish for the soloist precedes the Chopin-influenced first theme that is later taken up with abbreviated references from the woodwind. After a brief transitional passage with prominent brass writing the piano initiates a secondary theme combining lyrical charm and nostalgia. This mood soon changes and the general character of the whole movement is now transformed as the theme assumes a bravura quality, given additional muscle with off-beat orchestral chords. This triumphant gesture leads straight into the development section where the orchestra picks out the falling fourth from the first theme against arpeggio figuration from the soloist. Another appearance of the secondary theme leads to the briefest of cadenzas before the themes are recalled in their home key.

An arch-like structure shapes the second movement, marked Andante con moto and now in 3/4. Its nostalgic and harmonically ambiguous introduction eventually resolves into the warm key of D flat major where the main cantabile theme provides the movement with its characteristic languor and poetic mood. A descending cello figure heralds a more impassioned central section, Energico, providing expressive woodwind opportunities before the piano’s poetic theme returns, leaving us with a brief reminder of the opening bars for horns and strings. While this derivative movement never quite reaches toward any emotional depths nor avoids a salon element it is, nonetheless, a highly polished offering for a twenty-year-old who has yet to find his own distinctive voice. It is in the balance between soloist and orchestra that Arensky is most accomplished.

A recurring feature of Arensky’s style makes an early appearance in the finale in his use of 5/4 time. This trademark characteristic drew criticism from Tchaikovsky who later was to make use of this metre famously in the second movement of his own Sixth Symphony. Arensky’s sonata-form last movement (back in F minor) makes full use of the orchestra (pairs of woodwind, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani and strings) which now comes to the foreground. It opens with a compact theme (reminiscent of the opening phrase of Grieg’s Piano Concerto) the potential of which Arensky never quite realises and which eventually gives way to a more lyrical folk-like idea now in F major. Youthful inexperience limits any substantial development of these two themes and they return in their expected keys and rightful place to conclude this impressive student concerto.

While Arensky’s eclectic style separated him from the nationalistic circle of composers surrounding Balakirev, he did make occasional forays into Russia’s indigenous folk-melody and folk-lore. These are explored in his Variations sur un thème russe (which opens his Suite No. 1 of 1885) and A Dream on the Volga (1891) based on the same Ostrovsky play as Tchaikovsky’s Voyevoda. From the same period comes Arensky’s second and last work for piano and orchestra, the Fantasia on Russian Folksongs, Op. 48, published in 1899 by Jurgenson. The two principal themes on which this rhapsodic work is based take their inspiration from the ethno-musicologist Ivan Trovimovich Ryabinin whose collection of folksongs and epic tales from the north Russian coast Arensky had heard in a recital in Moscow in 1892. The first (Iz togo li goroda iz Muromlia) is an Andante sostenuto in E minor; its striving melodic line, expressive appoggiaturas and sense of nostalgia bear traces of Grieg and anticipate elements of Rachmaninov. The more rhythmic second theme (Zhil Sviatoslav debianosto let) with its marchlike character provides a glimpse of its heroic origins. Arensky himself was the soloist at the work’s première.

To the memory of Suvorov is a commemorative march dating from May 1900, a work that celebrates the centenary of Alexander Vasilyevich Suvorov (1729–1800), an eighteenth-century General whose reputation rests on the defeat of the Turks during the Russo-Turkish War of 1787–1792. So distinguished was his military career that Catherine the Great made him a count. The music’s three-part structure captures the General’s triumphs and in the rising trumpet fanfares of the outer sections its official style seems almost to pre-empt Walton. For the brief central section the composer draws on simpler, folk-like music to remember the once-legendary General whose family originated from Arensky’s birthplace Novgorod.

Like the Suvorov march the Symphonic Scherzo bears no opus number. Its intriguing provenance is a matter of conjecture as the only source appears to be an undated manuscript found in a St Petersburg library archive. Whether or not this stand-alone movement is part of an abandoned symphonic first movement or a rejected student exercise is unknown. While Arensky handles the sonata-form construction and full orchestral scoring with ease, his opening echo of Liszt, repeated exposition and patchwork of returning themes, suggests that this attractive composition is a work of youth rather than experience.

David Truslove

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