Anton ARENSKY (1861-1906)
Suites For Two Pianos
Suite No.1, Op.15 (Romance; Waltz; Polonaise)
Suite No.2 “Silhouettes”, Op.23 (Le Savant; La
Coquette; Polichinelle; Le Rêveur; La
Danseuse) (1892) [16:42]
Suite No.3 “Variations”, Op.33 (Thème; Dialogue;
Valse; Marche Triomphale; 18th
Century Menuet; Gavotte; Scherzo; Marche
Funèbre; Nocturne; Polonaise) (1894) [25:56]
Suite No.4, Op.62 (Prelude; Romance; Le Rêve;
Finale) (1901) [14:27]
Natalia Lavrova, Vassily Primakov (pianos)
rec. 12-14 September 2011, Academy of Arts and Letters, New York.
LP CLASSICS 1001 [71:12]
Anton Arensky was one of the “lesser names” of the late Russian Romanticism. He falls among those who were heavily influenced by Tchaikovsky and doomed to stay forever in his shade. He was a pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov, and himself taught Rachmaninov, Scriabin and Grechaninov. He was also influential in promoting the art of two-piano music. This disc contains all four of his Suites for Two Pianos. Certainly, much of it is salon music. It is pretty and often sentimental, but well-made and not over-sweetened. Arensky’s music may lack a distinctive personal style, yet it does not sound trivial, and can be enjoyed a lot, especially in such an enthusiastic performance. Not every track stays in the memory, but each is entertaining while it lasts, and the entire disc leaves a great aftertaste.
Suite No.1 has a lot of whipped cream toppings and resembles young Rachmaninov, especially his two piano suites – though the influence is the other way round. Romance flows with Romantic melodies over thick textures; everything speaks love and sweet melancholy. The Tchaikovskian Waltz alternates between gracious lilt and grand, stomping bravura. The music sparkles and glitters playfully, with a scent of Strauss Jr. The last number could be a descendant of Chopin’s polonaises, inheriting their haughty and proud, bravura traits. It is woven out of a mix of rather standard short motifs and propelled by strong rhythms. The middle section is more relaxed, with light silver shine.
Suite No.2, Silhouettes, is a series of characteristic portraits, akin to Schumann’s Carnaval or the harpsichord suites of the French Baroque. Le Savant is dark and massive and reaches an imposing fugal climax. It employs some of Bach’s devices and techniques, and actually sounds like Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor compressed into two minutes. La Coquette is an easy-going, flowering valse-musette, a bit Barbie-faced, very French, with a nimble and enjoyable swing. Polichinelle resembles Holst’s Mercury: ham-fisted and sanguine, it makes a hundred moves a minute, and is rushing somewhere, not clear where, and not clear whether the hero knows it himself. Le Rêveur (The Dreamer) resembles Schumann, but even more Tchaikovsky. It starts with a dreamy tenderness and reluctance, then gradually gathers energy to a passionate peak, and falls back into the sweet reverie. The writing, especially considering the two pianos, is very transparent. The Dancer clearly hails from Andalucía. Arensky expertly builds the music out of Spanish rhythms and motifs. The writing for two pianos is adventurous and often dazzling; this is dark and chilly music of fires in the night. The Spanish Dances of Granados saw light only two years before: could Arensky have known them?
Suite No.3 is a set of characteristic variations. The theme is calm, introspective, and quite unassuming. It conveys the solemn character of a prayer or a peaceful meditation. The imaginative set of variations invites us to walk through a series of pictures, where the theme is transformed into different dances and scenes. You won’t have the feeling that you are listening to one of the “minor names”: the music is composed with such a sure hand, that it could have been written by Tchaikovsky or Brahms! Subtlety is mixed with grandeur, seriousness with joy, the antique with the new. The simple theme provides many opportunities for transformation. The variations are not too short and fleeting; each has enough musical content for a good-sized piece. The ideas of some variations are quite straightforward, still the result does not sound banal. Some parts, like the mellifluous Nocturne, could well have an independent musical life. Like the first Suite, this one ends with a majestic, sparkling Polonaise.
Suite No.4 opens with a pompous, triumphant Prelude. It sounds Wagnerian, and distantly recalls the Meistersinger overture. Romance resembles Tchaikovsky’s Snowdrop from The Seasons. It starts pastoral but quickly becomes restless. The overall mood is of spring, youth and innocence. Le Rêve is not the dream that the Dreamer from the Second Suite was seeing: that one was a description of a daydreaming person – while here we have a retelling of a dream. In the beginning we are submerged into pearly, enveloping softness. Suddenly there is a tornado, a dramatic passionate episode – and all disappears, is forgotten, and again we rock on the rainbow waves. The Finale has much common with Chopin’s Fantaisie Impromptu: same restless flight, same stormy whirlwind, and same triumphant ending.
The booklet contains an engaging musical analysis of the works. The recording is rich and clear; the engineering preserved the fullness of the sound very well. The voices of the two CFX pianos are beautiful – not too light and not too heavy. Lavrova and Primakov play with brilliance and depth. They have excellent unity and do not hesitate to go with full power. There are no “favorite parts” and “fillers”: each track is treated with affection and presented in the best light.
This is the first disc by the new label LP Classics, co-founded by Lavrova and Primakov - hence its name, I bet. I think that this is a very successful inaugural record, and I will wait for more releases from this label. I especially hope that the two pianists will continue to explore the rich world of Romantic two-piano and four-hands literature. Together, they really have everything, technically and emotionally, to bring this music out.