These are not new releases, but somehow missed out on being reviewed on this site when they were released a decade ago. Given the paucity of recordings of these works, it seemed reasonable to remedy that, when perusing the Chandos back catalogue. According to Mike Herman’s discography of Russian symphonies
, each of the symphonies has only been recorded three times, twice in the CD era. The competition for these Chandos releases is heavyweight, if not in number, then in reputation, being that of Evgeny Svetlanov, originally released on Melodiya, and currently still available, I believe, on the Svetlanov Foundation label. Those three recordings were reviewed here in 2008
, and a footnote to the review provides the comprehensive notes prepared by Musicweb International editor Rob Barnett for the release. I commend them to you for background information on Arensky and the majority of works presented on the two Chandos discs. I haven’t heard the Svetlanov recordings, and can only comment that in each of the symphonies and the suite, he is a minute or so slower than the Chandos versions.
Symphony No. 1 unsurprisingly lives in the shadows of Rimsky-Korsakov, Arensky’s teacher, and Tchaikovsky, his most significant influence. It is, nevertheless, an interesting work, with plenty of original ideas, interspersed by semi-digested chunks of his mentors. There is considerable energy and drama in the first movement, the slow movement has grace and emotion and the scherzo is suitably spirited. The finale is the weakest of the four, but what did grab my attention were a number of moments that seem very similar to elements of the Infernal Dance from Stravinsky’s Firebird
, a coincidence undoubtedly due to the fact that both were taught by the great orchestrator, Rimsky-Korsakov.
The Tchaikovsky variations for string orchestra, from a theme from a Tchaikovsky song and first used in Arensky’s string quartet No. 2, is his most recorded orchestral work, and it is easy to see why. Freed from the need to write for brass and wind where he seems only to copy his teacher, Arensky, as in his chamber music, demonstrates his capabilities much better.
The “fillers” are a mixed bunch in terms of genre – none of them make any great impression, though I did enjoy the unusual scoring of the vocal quartets, the choir accompanied by a solo cello.
The second disc, by recording date if not catalogue number, begins with overtures from two of Arensky’s three operas. The first from A Dream on the Volga
, the most successful of the operas, is rather remarkable in that had I heard it without any knowledge of what it was, I would have asked “is this an newly discovered work by Elgar?”. Certainly, there are plenty of Russian, by which I mean Tchaikovskian, moments, but the marches with brass and percussion fanfares are Elgarian. The Introduction to Nal and Damayanti
is unquestionably Russian, but less interesting than Dream
Arensky wrote five suites for two pianos, and this was how I heard them first, on a cracking Hyperion release (CDA66755) with Stephen Coombs and Ian Munro. I have to say, that while in general, my preference is for orchestral music over piano, I find the two-piano version of No. 3 far superior to the composer-orchestrated version. Only in a couple of the nine variations does the extra colour or weight of the orchestra seem to help.
Symphony No. 2 is very Russian, but very derivative. There are many moments in the first and final movements that sound very much like Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade
. The second movement begins almost as a paraphrase of the slow movement from Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony. The Intermezzo is the best movement of the work, delicate and not obviously borrowed. I listened to the symphonies in reverse order, and was underwhelmed by this, and pleasantly surprised by the first. Hearing them as they were written, it is easy to see why Rimsky-Korsakov, who initially spoke highly of his pupil, ended up saying of him “He will soon be forgotten”.
Despite recorded less than six months apart, the two discs are performed and recorded by different teams, the first in Russia, the second in England. I don’t normally comment on sound quality unless it happened to be exceptional, but I did find the Russian recording better than the English one.
Based on my knowledge of Arensky’s chamber works and two piano suites, I’d hoped for better than what was presented here – it would seem that the orchestra wasn’t his forte. There is a good reason why the symphonies in particular have a very limited discography – they are only of limited quality. Nevertheless, if you are still curious, try the First Symphony and the Tchaikovsky variations – at least they are on the same disc.