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Anton ARENSKY (1861-1906)
Suites – No. 1 in G minor, Op. 7 (1885) [28’58]; No. 2, Op. 23, ‘Silhouettes’ (1892) [17’17]; No. 3, Op. 33, ‘Variations in C’ (publ.1894) [30’08].
Moscow Symphony Orchestra/Dmitry Yablonsky.
Rec. Mosfilm Studio, Moscow, in October 1995. DDD
NAXOS 8.553768 [76’23]


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Appearing through my letterbox not too long after my most recent encounter with Yablonsky, it was difficult not to harbour doubts about this release. I found Yablonsky’s version of Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky utterly unremarkable (http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2003/Aug03/Prokofiev_Nevsky.htm), although my colleague Paul Shoemaker found delight in the sonics of the same disc’s SACD incarnation (http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2003/Sept03/Prokofiev4_lshoemaker.htm).

This Arensky disc appears to be a different matter, musically speaking. Perhaps the fact that Arensky’s Weltanschauung is uniformly happier than Prokofiev’s has something to do with it: no trace of sarcasm or caustic wit here, nor of oppressive affekt.

Arensky is one of those composers known more for who he taught (Rachmaninov, Scriabin) rather than for what he himself actually produced. Only his First Piano Trio of 1894 has really gained any sort of a place in any repertoire. Collectors of Philips’ ‘Great Pianists of the Twentieth Century’ series may already have husband-and-wife duo Bruk and Taimanov’s version of the Suites for Two Pianos (456 736-2PM2); note both Suites No. 2 and 3 on the present disc began life as piano duos. For those interested in the byways of Russian music, then, there should be much to savour here.

Indeed there is, and it is good to have these 1995 recordings at such a cheap price. The disc begins with the Suite No. 2 (‘Silhouettes’), a series of five character studies: Le Savant (The Scholar); La Coquette; Polichinelle (Buffoon); Le Rêveur (the Dreamer); La Danseuse (The Dancer). The first movement begins with a pomposity most apposite to this parody of an academic, later juxtaposed with delightfully spiky writing. The movements complement each other well, the balletically smooth stylisation of ‘Coquette’ setting off the active and comedic ‘Polichinelle’. The half-voiced strings for ‘The Dreamer’ are most effective, enhanced by the skilful addition of a harp. An infectiously gay ‘Dancer’, full of Iberian influence, rounds the suite off. There is almost a circus feel to the close, a definite tinge of slapstick in the air. This is stylised, Russified Spain of the highest order.

Expertly crafted in its own way, the First Suite (in G minor, Op. 7) begins with a set of variations on a Russian theme taken from a collection assembled by Rimsky-Korsakov in 1875/6. Certainly the opening statement, in bare octaves, is intensely Russian. The prevailing feeling of grace and compositional competency is continued throughout the five movements. The strings manage the higher-lying parts of the ‘Air de danse’ second movement well. The fourth movement of this Suite, ‘Basso ostinato’, is probably Arensky’s most popular composition (having had exposure in several piano anthologies). A pity the finale (‘Marche’) verges on the pompous.

The Third Suite is actually a single set of variations. Arensky is at his most imaginative in the quieter sections. The delicacy of the fourth variation (a ‘Menuet XVIIIème siècle’) calls Tchaikovsky’s ‘Nutcracker’ to mind; the immediately ensuing Gavotte is pure joy. In fact there is much delight to be gleaned from this piece, as indeed from this disc as a whole. For anyone who wishes to explore the output of this neglected composer, they need look no further for a sound starting point.

Colin Clarke

 



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