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
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
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,
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),
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.