Arensky's First Piano Trio is among his most famous works, while
his Second is all but unknown. Listening to the works back to
back on this disc, it is difficult to account for the disparity.
Both tick all the right boxes for a popular chamber work: they
are melodic, dramatic, well structured. They are not masterpieces
by any means, but I can't help the feeling that the Second Trio
deserves at least some of the attention that the First has attracted
over the years.
Anton Arensky, much like Sergei Taneyev, is a composer who suffers
disproportionately through comparison to Tchaikovsky. True,
both Arensky and Taneyev actively sought to emulate, or at least
continue, Tchaikovsky's musical project. So often in these sorts
of popularity contests it simply comes down to who can write
the best tunes, and by that measure Tchaikovsky wins hands down,
with Arensky and Taneyev tying for a very distant second place.
Tchaikovsky was a Classical composer in a Romantic age, and
both Arensky and Taneyev inherited his classical outlook. Arensky
in particular was a composer who depended heavily on traditional
formal designs (with rigorous repetitions) and a sense of scale
that belonged firmly in the 18th century. The positive
side of this classical outlook is an emphasis on craftsmanship,
and the sense of symmetry and balance in these works is one
of their greatest assets.
Tchaikovsky's influence could also be framed as a dialogue between
the cosmopolitan and the nationalist traditions in late 19th
century Russian music. But while Tchaikovsky manages to embrace
both, Arensky is much more of the cosmopolitan school, always
looking westward for his models. Dance movements here are courtly
affairs rather than folk episodes, and the music's Russian flavour,
while often apparent, is very difficult to pin down.
These Russian performers are keenly aware of the music's Russian
but non-nationalist character. Their performing style is Russian
to the extent that the music plays out in broad, bold strokes.
On the other hand, there is always a classical sense of restraint
here too, which gives impressive clarity to Arensky's formal
plans. The string players both have quite a woody tone, which
is satisfyingly visceral, although it can sometimes impede the
cantabile quality of the melodies.
One aspect of the performers' restraint that puzzles me is the
almost complete absence of dynamics or accents. Arensky was
prescriptive to a fault on both issues, filling his scores with
dynamic markings, hairpins and various accents. That can often
be seen as a licence to ignore some of the more obvious markings,
but these players seem to ignore them all. That said, the phrasing
is excellent, and is elegantly articulated through some very
subtle rubato. On the whole, the Rachmaninov Trio Moscow do
Arensky justice by creating passionate and energetic performances
of his works while always working within his self-imposed aesthetic
The sound quality is good, although not quite up to the standards
set recently by some of Tudor's SACDs. The sound treats the
three players as equals, and perhaps that is the way the musicians
themselves work, but whichever way, it means that the piano
rarely dominates and is often relegated to an accompanying role.
The sound is surprisingly homogeneous for a piano trio recording,
yet it never lacks clarity. All round, this is a good introduction
to the music of Anton Arensky. It isn't the only way to play
this music, not by any means, but the interpretations are coherent
and engaging, and repay repeated listening.
See also review by Brian