About this Recording
8.573317 - ARENSKY, A.: Chamber Music - Piano Quintet / String Quartet No. 2 / Piano Trio No. 1 (Spectrum Concerts Berlin)
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Anton Arensky (1861–1906)
Piano Quintet, Op. 51 • String Quartet No. 2, Op. 35 • Piano Trio No. 1, Op. 32

 

Born in Novgorod in 1861, Anton Arensky belonged to the generation of Russian composers midway between Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov (that included Glazunov, Gretchaninov and Liadov) and who came to prominence in the closing decade of the nineteenth century. By the time he was nine his precocious gifts had expressed themselves in several songs and piano pieces, and in 1879 the family moved to St Petersburg where he enrolled at its Conservatoire. As a student he was notoriously lazy, but such were his talents that by the time he completed his training in 1882 (with a Gold Medal for his cantata The Forest Czar) he had also written a Piano Concerto, its startling virtuosity anticipating a glittering future.

The Moscow Conservatoire was quick to recognise Arensky’s flair and appointed him to its staff where he was one of its youngest professors. Whilst there, (where his pupils included Medtner, Rachmaninov and Scriabin) he added two symphonies and a violin concerto to the orchestral repertoire and the first of three operas, A Dream on the Volga, which gained both the approval of Tchaikovsky and considerable success at its 1891 première. Arensky also became recognised as a conductor and in 1895 he returned to St Petersburg where he succeeded Balakirev to the directorship of the Imperial Chapel. He relinquished this post six years later with a pension of 6000 rubles (twice the sum given to Balakirev) and took up a professorship at St Petersburg Conservatoire where he continued to compose and play the piano for concert tours. But his health was irreparably damaged by both tuberculosis and a dissolute life style, once described by Rimsky-Korsakov as “a dissipated course between wine and card-playing” and which severely contributed to his untimely death in a sanatorium in Finland aged 45. One obituary declared “Russian art has sustained a heavy loss of a thoroughbred artist”.

With the exception of his Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky and the second two chamber pieces on this disc Arensky’s early promise never quite translated into lasting achievements. In Rimsky-Korsakov’s memoirs, Chronicle of my musical life, Arensky was bluntly dismissed with “he will soon be forgotten”, yet the novelist Leo Tolstoy said of him “among the new composers he is the best, he is simple and melodious”. This observation might well describe the distinctive but relatively modest contribution Arensky made in the field of chamber music—all written for strings or piano and strings that amply demonstrate the composer’s lyric and expressive gifts.

Arensky’s Piano Quintet dates from 1900 when he was also occupied with his ballet score Egyptian Nights. In the absence of any significant Russian tradition for quintet writing Arensky would have looked to Germany for representative examples on which to model his own quintet. The first movement (Allegro moderato) is a redblooded affair, its sweeping main theme bursting from the declamatory opening. Apart from a brief episode of searching harmonies in the development section (with echoes of Brahms) the movement’s energy and density of texture rarely lets up, invigorated by bravura piano writing clearly conceived for himself to play.

A set of variations (Andante) follows next, based on an old French song Sur les ponts d’Avignon j’ai ouï chanter la belle and which are by turns gentle and turbulent. Strings alone announce the theme that leads to the first variation heard in the piano. A dramatic paragraph then yields to an extended elaboration for piano and cello before the full ensemble returns in a radiant D major. A reflective and waltz-like variant allows the piano further opportunity for decoration and, after another agitated episode (with a reference to the opening Allegro in the piano) the movement draws to a gentle close.

An effervescent Scherzo recalls the élan of the first movement and demonstrates Arensky’s facility and lightness of touch, its outer sections suggestive of Mendelssohn at his most impish. Sparkling piano writing eventually yields to smoother, flowing lines before returning to the capricious mood of the opening section. The finale is a curious integration of Baroque mannerisms, (note the marking in modo antico), with a fugal version of the second movement’s French song and a return to the main theme from the first movement.

In sharp contrast to the triumph that closes the Quintet, the second of Arensky’s two string quartets is a sombre, elegiac work in three movements. Written in 1894 in memory of Tchaikovsky, (who had died the previous year), String Quartet No. 2 is unusual in its scoring for single violin, viola and two cellos. These rich sonorities are fully explored in the repeated chords (based on a Russian Orthodox funeral chant) that open the work. Sobriety of expression soon gives way to tenderness with the appearance of the delicate first theme taken by the violin which, freed from its lowest register, soon discovers higher reaches in passionate outbursts. After a pause five repeated cello Gs introduce a gentle second theme which, after an agitated passage leads to a re-examination of the first theme—by turns intense and elegiac. Two further appearances of the funeral chant enclose one last appearance of the two main themes.

Arensky next turns to Tchaikovsky’s popular Legend, Op. 54, also known in its choral version as Crown of Roses, for a set of seven variations which, like the Quintet, are alternately lyrical and energetic. The cello initiates both the first variation and the second, now with much agitation in the upper strings. Shifting to a warm E major, the viola carries the theme in the third variation, while in the fourth, fragments of the theme are exchanged in a mood of nervous energy. Tranquil elaborations characterise the fifth, (its tune now augmented and assigned to the cello), while the sixth is a tour-de-force of string writing. The seventh (with strings muted) is elegiac and a chant-like coda draws the variations to a sombre conclusion.

This tone continues into the final movement in which Arensky integrates a theme from a Requiem funeral mass (heard at the outset) with a patriotic folk-song “Slava Bogu” (Glory to God) transformed into a lively fugato. After its intense development, with quasi-orchestral sonorities, the slow chant briefly returns before Arensky unleashes a triumphant reprise of the fugato theme and celebrates in grand style the memory of his hero Tchaikovsky.

The first Piano Trio (also from 1894) is another commemorative work, this time with a dedication to his friend the cellist Karl Davidoff who had been Director of the St Petersburg Conservatoire when Arensky was there as a student and had died suddenly in 1889. It is no surprise that the cello features prominently in this wonderfully elegiac work.

The expansive first movement opens with a lyrical theme stated twice by the violin over a gently rippling accompaniment. With the cello’s arrival both instruments briefly “discuss” the theme before a dance-like episode is reached. Its carefree mood soon makes way for a new expressive idea announced by the cello. To this quiet rapture the violin joins in, and after a dramatic flourish from the piano the music builds towards an intense coda—the piano very much a leading participant. Imitative phrases derived from both the opening theme and the dance-like episode fashion the development and following a dramatic passage of tremolando strings the violin ushers in a full recapitulation with the main theme. An Adagio section reminiscing on the main theme brings the movement to a gentle close.

Where the first movement is rhapsodic the second, an infectious Scherzo, is a glittering waltz, its buoyant mood built on the violin’s stammering figure and the piano’s cascading scales. Humour of a different kind continues in the Trio where the piano’s resolute accompaniment to cello and violin seem to nosethumb decades of Viennese tradition. It is perhaps in the Adagio movement—the emotional core of this work—that the cellist Davidoff is most fondly recalled. In the Elegia, muted cello pours out a heartfelt melody over a dignified accompaniment. A slightly faster central panel brings a lighter mood and a new theme of great charm is given to the piano and supported by undulating strings. With the reprise of the main theme, on the violin’s lowest string, the elegiac mood brings this Adagio to a peaceful conclusion.

The finale is built on contrasting paragraphs of great restlessness and more leisurely discourse that recall the earlier movements. A sense of impetuosity begins the finale where driving rhythms from the piano and vigorous string interjections (with some virtuosic violin passages) push the music onward with boundless energy. This leads to the first more relaxed passage—its lyricism recalling the elegiac idea. A return to the dramatic earlier passage leads to further reminders of the slow movement—this time the rising contours of the central theme. Further drama eventually leads to the work’s nostalgia opening theme, but it is the movement’s restlessness that ultimately prevails.

David Truslove


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