Anton Stepanovich ARENSKY (1861-1906)
Egyptian Nights, Op 50 (complete ballet) (1900)
Moscow Symphony Orchestra/Dmitri Yablonsky
rec. March 1996, Mosfilm Studio, Moscow
NAXOS 8.573633 [50:38]
In his autobiography My Musical Life, Rimsky-Korsakoff states that his pupil Anton Arensky “would not be long remembered”. Indeed, for decades Arensky’s profile seemed to be limited to his Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky, arranged from his String Quartet No 2, and one or two other pieces. More recently, his chamber and orchestral music have been extensively explored on disc, notably by Dmitri Yablonsky (review ~ review). Egyptian Nights is one of Arensky’s most extensive scores and this recording, also by Yablonsky, originally dating from 1996 (review), remains the only one available.
The plot of Egyptian Nights is easily related. At the time of Cleopatra, Amoun and Bérénice are in love. They are blessed by the priest of the Egyptian temple, before which the action of the ballet takes place. At the arrival of Cleopatra to meet Antony, Amoun promptly forgets Bérénice and clumsily attempts to get Cleopatra’s attention by shooting an arrow with a papyrus stating his admiration in her direction. Understandably, Cleopatra is quite alarmed by this and orders Amoun to take poison, for which the priest substitutes a narcotic. Antony finally arrives and the finale sees harmony restored as the chastened Amoun begs forgiveness of Bérénice.
The plot related above provided Arensky with a framework for a series of varied dance numbers. He took great pains to research historical source material for these dances, yet I must confess that most resemble the music of Rimsky-Korsakov or Arensky’s contemporary Kalinnikov more than anything Cleopatra or Antony would have recognized. This is not to detract from the quality of Arensky’s score, which is always charming, and frequently dramatic. One of the highlights is the beautiful central section of the Overture (track 1), equaled by the lovely music for Bérénice with its lovely violin solo (track 5) and the effective Poisoning Scene (track 6). The nationalistic or ethnic dances which follow (tracks 7, 8, 10) are all enjoyable but not especially differentiated from each other, but the second dance of Arsinoë (track 9) is quite distinctive, as is the music for Antony (tracks 13, 14), although one could be forgiven for thinking that Antony is arriving on the Neva, not the Nile. The Finale (track 15) is very appealing. To summarize, Egyptian Nights does not have a lot of local color, in spite of Arensky’s researches, but it does have a lot of attractive music, and the orchestration is worthy of Rimsky-Korsakov or Tchaikovsky.
The present disc is one of many recordings originally on Marco Polo that have been re-released on Naxos. Acoustically, Egyptian Nights could use an up-to-date recording, but one cannot cavil about Dmitri Yablonsky’s powerful performance, which derives the maximum excitement from the score. The Moscow Symphony Orchestra plays equally well and the whole production is a feast for any fan of Russian music of the time.