One of the most pleasurable voyages of discovery this year has been the ‘Russian Piano Music Series’ and in particular the four volumes entrusted to the superbly capable and musically astute care of Anthony Goldstone. This is the third volume I have had the pleasure of reviewing … and I bought the fourth volume for reasons of simple pleasure. The common thread through all of the discs has been the rediscovery of virtuoso piano repertoire from the first half of the last century. Each disc has been hugely satisfying in itself but I would argue that the four together become even more stimulating allowing the listener to compare and contrast the differing musical approaches of four composers from essentially the same Russian Romantic stock.
Anthony Goldstone has proved to be the ideal guide. It is more than just a case of a rock solid technique; in each case he has shown himself not only to be totally attuned to both the core style of the repertoire but crucially, equally at ease with one minute bon-bons or large-scale sonatas. This empathy extends beyond the performances to include some of the most interesting and best written performer liner-notes that I have read; an ideal blend of insight and information. As with the Glière disc previously reviewed this recital of Arensky’s music seems to be a straight reissue of an Olympia disc originally released in 2001. All credit to Divine Art for restoring this to the catalogue. This is a programme of miniatures with only two of the 39 tracks running beyond 3 minutes. Even the collections of 12 Preludes Op.63 or 12 Etudes Op.74 have less cumulative impact as a group than the magnificent 25 Preludes Op.30 by Glière which dominate volume 3. Yet it would be quite wrong to assume miniature means slight. Yes, as Goldstone points out, many of these pieces smack more of the Salon than the Steppe yet craft and care and idiomatic piano writing ooze from them at every turn. Goldstone quotes a wonderfully dismissive and sniffy passage from Rimsky-Korsakov’s autobiography where the senior composer points to Arensky’s penchant for cards and drink that led to his early death at the age of 44 and states rather bleakly; “he will soon be forgotten”. Frustratingly, the dissolute life did mean that both the Preludes and Etudes exist as incomplete half-sets but the pleasures to be had from the music that we do have is considerable. Again as Goldstone points out – well if you will write an astute liner it’s going to be quoted! – the influences here are much more Chopin and Schumann rather than fellow Russian nationalists. Given that the two Arensky symphonies are very much in the nationalist tradition it is a little disappointing that his 100+ piano works do not ever grapple with something on a larger more dramatic scale. Instead every movement evokes a beautiful miniature world. I enjoyed in particular the flowing harmonies of Prelude No.6 in G major [track 6] and the lyrical ‘question and answer’ of Prelude No.10 in D minor – the smooth ease with which Goldstone navigates this kind of deceptively hard writing indicative of his playing throughout. As in the Glière recital the engineers and producer have created a relatively intimate salon acoustic which I feel suits the music ideally – likewise the chosen piano is perfectly scaled to the repertoire.
If I was forced to choose I would have to say that I found the Lyapunov disc the most revelatory with the Glière not far behind. Both those composers cover a wider musical and dramatic range in the programmes as recorded but then conversely this Arensky is disarmingly charming and gently moving. There is something desperately poignant about a man creating such simple beauty by day and living a nihilistic existence by night. More wide-ranging – in relative terms – are the six Essais sur des rythmes oubliés Op.28. These are studies in flexible rhythm which Arensky exploits to try and lose predictable bar lines. Hence he uses a 5/4 time signature some years before Tchaikovsky did in his final symphony. Curiously, for all their attempts to be more radical at 120 years distance they sound more harmonically conservative with the rhythmic ‘novelty’ barely registering. But they are all adorned with some ravishing filigree writing that again Goldstone plays with artless ease and the subtlest rubato – this really is a master-class in the playing of this style of music. As befits their title the 12 Études are more overtly technical and as such less immediately charming; that being said the harp-like cascades of No.5 in D major [track 23] are instantly beguiling. The disc is completed with two shorter compilations of pieces with the six Arabesques Op.67 being the music of least consequence on the disc. But all credit to Goldstone for not trying to impose a ‘meaning’ where one does not try to exist; this is graceful elegant music. The disc is completed with one final nonchalant – but brutally hard – Etude – which you could imagine as the encore to a superb recital, all easy wit and technical display couched in winningly charming terms. And that is just how it sounds here – a superb conclusion to a triumphant series of discs in which Mr Goldstone can take enormous pride. Proof if proof were needed that music does not need to always storm the heavens to be life-enhancing. Bravo!