About this Recording
8.572233 - ARENSKY, A.: Piano Music - 6 Pieces, Op. 53 / Etudes, Opp. 41 and 74 / Pres de la mer (Neiman)

Anton Stepanovich Arensky (1861–1906)
Piano Music


Born in Novgorod on 12 July 1861 Anton Stepanovich Arensky belonged to the generation of Russian composers, including Glazunov, Gretchaninov and Lyadov, who came to prominence in the closing decade of the nineteenth century. He was blessed with musical parents: his father, a doctor, was a keen cellist and his mother a fine pianist, and by the time he was nine he had already composed several songs and piano pieces. Between 1879 and 1882 he studied under Rimsky-Korsakov at the St Petersburg Conservatory, an institution founded by Anton Rubinstein just two decades earlier. Having completed his training and won a gold medal, Arensky took up a teaching appointment as one of its youngest professors at the Moscow Conservatory where his pupils included Rachmaninov and Scriabin. Whilst there, where Tchaikovsky’s encouragement was particularly beneficial, he gained attention as a conductor of the Russian Choral Society. His varied creative energies during this period 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.

From this year Arensky also produced an impressive Violin Concerto, a work contemporary with his two piano collections, the Six Esquisses and Six Pièces. In 1895 Arensky returned to St Petersburg when he succeeded Balakirev as Director of the Imperial Chapel, relinquishing this post six years later with a comfortable pension of 6000 roubles. From this time until his untimely death aged 45 his work was compromised by a life-style which Rimsky-Korsakov described as ‘a dissipated course between wine and card-playing’. To these last years, where his health was irreparably undermined by tuberculosis, also belong the twelve Etudes. Perhaps it was these pieces that Taneyev played at a soirée at Rimsky-Korsakov’s house less than a year after Arensky’s death in Finland in February 1906.

As a gifted pianist Arensky wrote nearly a hundred works for his own instrument across a composing career spanning almost 25 years. He appended his first opus number to the Six Canonic Pieces, a student work for piano of 1882 and his penultimate opus number, 74, to the twelve Etudes belonging to 1905. Unlike Glazunov and Tchaikovsky, the medium of the sonata held no interest for Arensky, whose creative impulse and easy command of keyboard textures found outlet in dozens of small scale and attractive pieces such as Caprices, Preludes, Romances and Etudes. In addition, Arensky also contributed to the scant repertoire for two pianists in his five Suites for two pianos. His early Piano Concerto in F minor (Naxos 8.570526) demonstrates his absorption of Chopin and Liszt (amongst others) whose stylistic influence, along with the lyricism of Mendelssohn and Grieg, was to remain part of his musical vocabulary for his subsequent piano works. Although Arensky did not extend the piano’s expressive potential, as Scriabin, Medtner and Rachmaninov were later to do, he nonetheless made a welcome contribution to the keyboard repertoire in numerous beautifully spun miniatures.

The Piano Concerto also appeared to presage a glittering future, and while his career flared briefly in the musical world of pre-Revolutionary Russia where he gained success as composer, conductor, pianist and teacher, these accomplishments have been mostly overlooked. Despite enthusiastic support during his lifetime from many significant admirers including Balakirev, Taneyev and Tchaikovsky his early promise never quite translated into lasting achievements owing to a combination of dissolute living and the lack of a distinctive personal style. These shortcomings prompted his erstwhile teacher Rimsky-Korsakov to remark ‘he will soon be forgotten’, a blunt observation from his memoirs Chronicle of My Musical Life published in 1909. This prediction has not proved entirely true as whilst there is still no biography in English, his Variations on a theme by Tchaikovsky, and Piano Trio in D minor continue to hold a place on the fringes of the orchestral and chamber repertoire and confirm his innate craftsmanship and lyric gifts.

This gift for melody is readily apparent in his Six Pièces, a collection comprising contrasting movements in the shape of a Suite: indeed, the opening Prelude makes its stately progress in the grand French manner, its repeated dotted rhythmic patterns enlivened by expressive dissonances. An extended three-part Scherzo follows in which fast chordal writing embraces a calmer central section, its syncopated melody and arpeggio flourishes adding to the movement’s playful spirit. In the charming Elégie sighing phrases reach a brief climax before yielding to a central passage marked by cross rhythms, its understated Russian melancholy typical of the composer. Echoes of Tchaikovsky can be detected in the spirited Mazurka while the Romance attempts to reach a deeper emotional expression. In the concluding Etude a more robust side of Arensky’s personality makes its presence felt.

If the Six Pièces show Arensky’s wide stylistic awareness then the strongly characterised Four Etudes, Op. 41, reveal echoes of Chopin especially in the harmonic idiom, rippling left hand and long-breathed melodic line of the opening Allegro molto. Only in its use of 5/8 does Arensky show an original touch, a metre whose recurring use prompted Tchaikovsky to rebuke him in a letter in 1895 warning that his predilection for 5/4 rhythms threatened to become a habit and suggesting that ‘the otherwise beautiful’ basso ostinato in his Six Pièces, Op. 5, would have been better in either 3/4 or 6/4 time. Internal melodic lines feature in both the second and third Etudes; ‘hidden’ in the right hand in the first and shared between the right hand’s outer fingers amid constant arpeggio movement in the second. In the fourth Etude playing in sixths, rhythmic drive and (in a central episode) expressive phrases combine to make these studies more than just technical exercises.

These Etudes share with the Op. 74 set, written during his final year, an undimmed melodic facility and wealth of invention despite the composer’s rapidly deteriorating health. Indeed Arensky endows these richly varied Etudes with every pianistic resource making full use of his trademark quintuplet metre, ardent lyricism and, in the fourth Etude, daring harmonic turns. It is possible that Arensky intended to write a further twelve studies since these begin in C major and rise chromatically if somewhat irregularly through the keys to reach G sharp minor for the final Etude (although the eleventh is in A flat major). He also skilfully varies weight and texture and in the sixth a more flamboyant effect is heard.

Of his Op. 52 Six Esquisses, ‘Près de la mer’, the first is dominated by a recurring arpeggio flourish that prefaces each of the many falling phrases. There follows a rondo in five sections propelled forward by a Lisztian turbulence. The restraint of the third is all the more sharply felt with its poignant lyricism and undulating accompaniment. Its ‘calm waters’ give way to a Schumannesque movement, while the fifth comprises recurring ideas in short abbreviated episodes that never quite hide the salon prettiness. The last movement is an exhilarating affair, sustaining interest until the final triumphant bar.

David Truslove

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