Anton ARENSKY (1861-1906)
Six Caprices, Op. 43
No 1: Moderato in A minor [1:49]
No 2: Vivace in A major [1:53]
No 3: Andante sostenuto in C major [2:27]
No 4: Allegro in G major [1:47]
No 5: Andante in D major [2:27]
No 6: Allegro moderato in B major [2:37]
Six Pièces, Op. 53 (1901)
No 1: Prélude. Largo [3:49]
No 2: Scherzo. Allegro [3:13]
No 3: Élégie. Allegro non troppo [2:59]
No 4: Mazurka. Tempo di mazurka [1:43]
No 5: Romance. Andante [2:40]
No 6: Étude. Allegro [1:49]
24 Characteristic Pieces, Op. 36 (1894)
No 3: Nocturne. Andante sostenuto [2:59]
No 15: Le ruisseau dans la forêt. Allegro moderato [3:28]
No 20: Mazurka. Allegro moderato [2:25]
No 16: Élégie. Adagio non troppo [3':39]
No 13: Étude. Moderato [2:27]
Près de la mer 'Six Esquisses', Op. 52
No 4: Allegro moderato in G flat major [3:26]
No 5: Allegro scherzando in E flat minor [2:34]
Quatre Morceaux, Op. 25
No 1: Impromptu. Andante sostenuto [3:31]
No 2: Rêverie. Andantino [2:32]
No 3: Étude 'on a Chinese theme'. Presto [3:42]
No 4: Scherzino. Allegro molto [1:22]
Quatre Études, Op. 41 (1896)
No 1: Allegro molto in E flat major [1:39]
No 2: Allegro vivace in F sharp major [2:16]
No 3: Allegro in E flat minor [1:44]
No 4: Allegro molto in A minor [1:30]
Stephen Coombs (piano)
rec. 1-3 March 1998, All Saints’ Church, East Finchley, London, UK. DDD

In his biographical liner-notes Stephen Coombs makes much of Rimsky-Korsakov’s ambivalent response to his former pupil, Anton Arensky. Yes, the latter was partial to cards and drink, but he did claim the gold medal for composition at the St Petersburg Conservatory in 1882 and was later regarded as a very fine teacher; indeed, his list of pupils reads like a Who’s Who of late-Romantic Russian composers. But for all that Arensky remains something of an enigma. I quite enjoyed his Piano Concerto – review – and although I thought Coombs’ rival version was lacklustre by comparison I did admire his four-handed Ravel with Christopher Scott (review).

As miniatures go, this music is as charming as it gets. The Six Caprices – each lasting less three minutes – are light, lyrical and wonderfully compact. From the very start Coombs impresses with playing of warmth and character. Factor in a detailed, natural piano sound – a speciality of the house – and it’s easy to overlook the slightness of some of these pieces and just revel in the music-making. And as befits such repertoire there’s a pleasing intimacy here, every jewelled phrase beautifully caught. Coombs has a keen ear for the dynamics of this music too, which always sounds so perfectly poised.

After the salon-like delicacy of the Caprices the first of the Six Pièces is dark and restless. But there’s sparkle and wit as well, notably in the nimble ‘Scherzo’, which reminds me so much of that other gifted but underrated composer-pianist, Louis Moreau Gottschalk. And if one needed proof of Arensky’s special gift – that of melody – just sample that finely spun little ‘Romance’; what sheer delight this is, and quite at odds with the storming pianism of the concluding ‘Étude’.

The five excerpts from Arensky’s so-called Character Pieces – written seven years earlier – is no less beguiling, that same rich vein of lyricism glimpsed in each. The sustained loveliness of the ‘Nocturne’ and aching introspection of ‘Élégie’ had me reaching for the repeat button – and not just once, either. That’s all very well, you might say, but there must be chaff somewhere. Well, if there is I can’t find it, each piece beautifully turned and winningly played. The programme is artfully chosen as well, the arresting ‘Étude’ (No. 6) a perfect foil for what’s gone before.

The selection from Près de la mer and the complete Quatre Morceaux are slightly less engaging perhaps, but such is the command and quality of Coombs’ playing that one’s concentration never wanes, the ear seduced by this little detail or that. Rhythms are supple and – especially in the exotic ‘Étude on a Chinese theme’ – the music has an iridescence that’s just astonishing. As for the Quatre Études, there’s a Lisztian surge – a certain masculinity, even – that may not always engage the heart but it does demand one’s respect and attention.

This is a mesmerising recital, a testament to the skill of both composer and pianist. Indeed, the more I hear this music the less I’m able to understand why it’s so rarely recorded or performed. So whether you’re just a pianophile or particularly interested in late-Romantic Russian repertoire, this disc is worth acquiring. At full price it would be a mandatory purchase; at this price it’s a steal.

Dan Morgan

A mesmerising recital… as charming as it gets.