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Anton Stepanovich ARENSKY (1861-1906)
Piano Concerto in F minor, Op. 2 (1881)* [26:22]
Fantasia on Russian Folksongs, Op. 48 (1899)* [8:34]
Pamyati Suvorova (To the Memory of Suvorov) (1900) [4:33]
Symphonic Scherzo (undated) [9:45]
Konstantin Scherbakov (piano)*
Russian Philharmonic Orchestra/Dmitry Yablonsky
rec. 6-17 March 2008, Studio 5, Russian State TV & Radio Co KULTURA, Moscow, Russia
NAXOS 8.570526 [49:06]
Experience Classicsonline

Anton Arensky died from tuberculosis, probably hastened by his addiction to gambling and alcohol; he was just 44. A product of the St Petersburg Conservatory, where he was taught my Rimsky-Korsakov, he went on to a professorship in Moscow, where his pupils included Rachmaninov and Scriabin. And although he wasn’t the brightest star in the Russian musical firmament he did produce some memorable works. Among these must be counted the early Piano Concerto in F minor, written when he was just 20.

As David Truslove points out in his liner notes, this concerto is a pioneering work, pre-dating those of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov by a number of years. That said, Mily Balakirev had already produced his first piano concerto in 1855, a work Dmitry Yablonsky and the Russian Philharmonic recorded for Naxos in 2006 (see review). My selected comparison for the Arensky concerto and fantasia is the Stephen Coombs/Jerzy Maksymiuk disc (Hyperion CDA 66624).

The Arensky and Balakirev concertos may be early works - the latter’s designated his Op. 1 - but both have the broad sweep and melodic richness we associate with their better-known successors. Indeed, it’s that distinctive ‘Russian sound’ that makes the Scherbakov/Yablonsky version of the concerto so compelling. They find much more weight and thrust in the grand introduction to the Allegro - the Hyperion recording sounds rather undernourished by comparison - and Coombs is no match for his Siberian counterpart when it comes to all that scintillating passagework.

Scherbakov also finds more poetry in the quieter moments, his phrasing easier and more natural than Coombs’. And although I felt the Russian Phil weren’t on top form in the Balakirev they seem much more engaged this time round. The recording is also pleasantly refined - not a given with discs from this source - and the piano sound and perspective are well judged. The Andante has some lovely Lisztian moments - sample the passage beginning at 1:47 - where Scherbakov colours and shapes the music with great sensitivity.

In almost every way this newcomer trumps the Hyperion account, which sounds curiously lacklustre and unidiomatic by comparison. Maksymiuk is certainly capable of more mercurial conducting than this - his CfP disc of Shostakovich concertos with Dmitri Alexeev is high-octane stuff - but then Coombs is also a little too reticent for this bold music. No such problems for Scherbakov in the Scherzo-Finale, where he pounces on the notes with Puckish glee. The Russian band enter into the spirit of things with playing of rare precision and polish. It’s an entertaining tête-à-tête, a witty exchange that ends with a suitably triumphant flourish. It’s also remarkably assured writing for one so young, and I’m delighted to say Scherbakov and Yablonsky do the piece full justice.

Sadly, it’s all downhill from here. As Truslove notes Arensky’s folksong fantasia contains traces of Grieg’s musical DNA - his piano concerto comes to mind. I particularly liked Scherbakov’s free-flowing, rhapsodic style in the first section, but even that can’t disguise the rather threadbare orchestral textures; the final bars are especially underwhelming. I had fewer reservations about Pamyati Suvorova (To the Memory of Suvorov), a short commemorative march that instantly reminded me of Walton at his ceremonial best. True, Arensky isn’t in the same league but the tingling Russian brass and magisterial timps still make for a fun piece.

The Symphonic Scherzo - possibly intended as part of a larger work - is the least successful item here. Indeed, if you’re hoping for even a hint of Mendelssohnian grace and charm - or what passes for it east of the Urals - you’ll be sorely disappointed. One senses the composer is striving for a lighter touch, but the effect is strangely awkward and unsatisfying. The orchestral playing isn’t particularly inspiring either, but really the biggest turn-off is the sound; it’s much too bright for comfort, an impression reinforced by the rather forward orchestral balance.

As with Yablonsky’s Balakirev disc, this is a hit-and-miss affair. Yes, Arensky’s Op.2 is more substantial and cohesive than Balakirev’s Op. 1, but then the latter’s folksong fantasia is the more engaging of the two. Also, one feels that Naxos, Yablonsky and the Russian Philharmonic are stuck on the musical equivalent of a fast-moving conveyor belt, which doesn’t always make for the tidiest of performances.

Worth it for the concerto alone.

Dan Morgan 


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