Anton ARENSKY (1861-1906)
Piano Quintet in D major, Op. 51 (1900) [23.50]
String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 35 (1894) [28.26]
Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 32 (1894) [27.43]
Spectrum Concerts Berlin
rec. live, 25 April 2014, Kammermusiksaal, Philharmonie, Berlin, Germany
NAXOS 8.573317 [80.00]

This Naxos release comprises around half of Anton Arensky’s chamber music output. A consistently underrated composer, falling in the generation between Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov, Arensky died at the relatively young age of forty-four. Born in 1861 at Novgorod Arensky entered the St. Petersburg Conservatoire and studied composition with Rimsky-Korsakov. Aged only twenty-one he became a professor at the Moscow Conservatoire most notably teaching Scriabin, Rachmaninov and Gretchaninov. It was at the Moscow Conservatoire that Arensky became closely associated and greatly influenced by Tchaikovsky and also with Taneyev. Rimsky-Korsakov remarked, “In his youth Arensky did not escape some influence from me; later the influence came from Tchaikovsky.” Rosa Newmarch biographer to both Tchaikovsky and Arensky wrote, “Both in style and temperament Arensky shows considerable affinity to Tchaikovsky.”

The four movement Piano Quintet in D major, Op. 51 from 1900 is contemporaneous with Arensky own divertissement-ballet in one act Egyptian Nights (review). Taneyev’s Piano Quintet (Op. 30, 1909/11) had yet to be written but Arensky would certainly have known examples of the piano quintet from the Austro/German repertoire. Spectrum Concerts Berlin responds with gripping vivacity to a score of considerable contrasts. Especially enjoyable is the Scherzo: Allegro Vivace which is played with an appealing buoyancy that suits its Mendelssohnian character.
Written in 1894 the three movement String Quartet No. 2 in A minor uses a pair of cellos rather than the usual pair of violins. Arensky dedicated it to Tchaikovsky who had died the year before. Given its association with grief and bereavement it is not surprising that this score charts a landscape of profound melancholy. Spectrum Concerts Berlin fully recognise this and impart a dark and sombre quality which is, especially telling in the opening Moderato.

From the same year as the Second String Quartet the Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 32 is dedicated to the memory of Karl Davidoff, director of the St. Petersburg Conservatoire during Arensky’s time there as a student. Davidoff was a renowned cellist and predictably Arensky ensures the score contains a prominent cello part. This is undoubtedly my favourite Arensky chamber score. I especially relish here the playing of the opening Allegro moderato with its melting lyricism and the insatiable spirit of the Scherzo, a sparkling waltz.

Displaying unforced technical command and lots of detail these are consistently engaging performances that make a strong case for these scores. Nevertheless, well worth hearing is the outstanding 2012 Berlin account of Arensky’s masterpiece the Piano Trio No. 1 played by the Trio Wanderer on Harmonia Mundi (review).

The engineering team here have produced cool and clear sound, closely recorded with a balance that slightly favours the piano. This is a live recording but I could detect no extraneous noise and any audience applause has been removed. The excellence of this album makes it a match for any release of Russian chamber music I have heard for some time.

Michael Cookson

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