Saturday, 14 April 2012

Arensky: Undiluted pleasure?

I'm going to follow in tradition here and preface a piece about Russian Romantic composer Anton Arensky (1861-1906) with this quote from Rimsky-Korsakov: "He'll quickly be forgotten". Almost every time his music gets played on the radio or a CD of his works is reviewed in a classical music magazine that quote gets trotted out. Given that, over a hundred years after his death, Arensky's music is still being played on the radio and CDs of his works are still being bought on Amazon, it might be time to say that Rimsky-Korsakov was not in fact correct!!

The point though behind this never-ending quoting of Rimsky's damning verdict is that a lot of critics share his view that Arensky isn't a great composer, or even a particularly good one. Tchaikovsky, however, disagreed and found him "remarkably gifted". I've listened to as much Arensky as possible and would say that I'm fond of a lot of his music, some of which is undeniably the product of a gifted composer - though not much of it could be said to be that of a great composer. 

The nearest he gets to greatness, as far as I'm concerned, is in his chamber works. For me his finest piece is the String Quartet No.2 in A minor, Op.35. The first thing to say is that this is a string quartet with a difference, in that it's scored for violin, viola and two cellos. This gives it a somewhat darker sound. The spur for the work was the death of Tchaikovsky and the central movement is a set of variations on a theme by Tchaikovsky, that of his touching choral Legend. The movement was then orchestrated and has become the nearest thing Arensky has to a worldwide hit piece. 

The Quartet's opening Moderato begins, as befits a work written in memoriam, with a lamenting introduction in the style of Russian Orthodox chant. The lead theme of the first movement's main section is also elegiac and has a winning lyricism which soon finds itself singing in the midst of passionate grief and then yields to an artfully-wrought second subject which sets a gentle, Tchaikovsky-like melody (in the major) that seems to partake of Russia's romance tradition against a chanting theme on cello. The pace quickens as this gratifying exposition comes to a close. In his development section, Arensky broods on the opening four notes of the main theme - setting them against tremolos, re-lyricising them and then agitating them into a climax. The introductory chant returns and the recapitulation (where the composer keeps things fresh) follows on closely. The coda continues to mingle brooding on the main theme with the lamenting chant of the introduction. I'd certainly say that this movement is an excellent piece of chamber music and one that shows that even composers generally considered 'minor' ones can still come up with first-rate pieces. 

As for those central variations on Tchaikovsky's melancholy tune, Variation I adds consoling imitations to the theme, while Variation II encases it in a frisky scherzo. Variation III, rightly marked 'Tranquillo', changes the theme into the major and warms it with romantic figuration. Variation IV is full of playful pizzicati and has a chromatic flavouring. Variation V is lovely, graceful and romantic. Variation VI is lively ('con spirito') and 'neo-Classical' in the manner of Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings. The theme then returns in its original form, riding on this deliciously springy figuration. Variation VII varies the theme most, reshaping it into a sweet and delicately-winning thing over a charming, sighing accompaniment. The coda begins with magical harmonics and, atmospherically, brings this piece back to the melancholy mood of its opening (quoting the lamenting chant of the first movement). Again, first-rate music, isn't it?

What of the Finale? After a short chant-based Andante introduction and its concluding elegiac phrases comes a vigorous fugue on a melody (the 'Slava' theme) used famously to acclaim the coronation of Boris Godunov in Mussorgsky's opera. Arensky puts it through its paces enjoyably, presumably as an acclamation of Tchaikovsky. When this ends, the melancholy of the introduction is recalled but the 'Slava' theme rides back in brilliantly to bring the whole quartet to a satisfying and triumphant close. Another excellent movement.

If you liked that you are also likely to enjoy the Arensky Piano Trio No.1 in D minor. which should appeal to anyone who appreciates either Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn or Schumann. 

The opening Allegro moderato has an especially lovely main subject - a lyrical melody first sung by the violin over a rippling accompaniment. It makes for a captivating opening. Though a lyrical tune it has parts that are easy to cut off and paste into passages of development. The second subject is cut from similarly lyrical cloth though its ardour is of a gentler and more wistful kind. The development section begins by making patterns from the principle 'motif', then starts overlapping it with itself, modulating it through various sequences (and Arensky was fond of sequences) and recasting it in major-key stardust (Arensky was also one for pianistic stardust) before building it to a stormy climax. It's not overly deep but it's persuasive nonetheless. The recapitulation is fairly straightforward while the coda revisits earlier ground in a spirit of agreeable nostalgia. 

Arensky opts for a Scherzo next. Fast repeated notes, trills, scales and pizzicato writing add extra sparkle to its giddy main section while its Trio section takes the form of a sweet and cheerful duet for the violin and cello over a lilting-in-heavy-boots accompaniment from the piano. This is the sort of good-natured, glittering music that gets composers a reputation for superficiality among certain more serious-minded critics - the sort of critics who don't appreciate Saint-Saëns either. They should lighten up!

A lovely slow movement follows. As its title Elegy would lead you to expect, this is full of sweet sigh and sobs, and has a beautiful main theme. For the sake of contrast comes a central section where a single theme or 'motif' (rather than a melody) is mined through sequential repetition and modulation. Here Arensky casts his middle section in the major-key and scores it gorgeously. When the main section returns the beautiful tune is set against a warm new counter-melody before the initial mood returns and the movement ends as it began.

The Finale doesn't strike me as being as distinguished as its companions. Although the main theme has plenty of fire, Arensky occasionally loses his way in the linking passages and his material (especially the second subject) is less melodically attractive. The movement is one of those Romantic pieces where themes from earlier movements are brought back to wrap things up tidily. Here the Elegy's cheery contrasting idea and the Trio's opening theme return before the Finale's own fiery theme dashes us to the end.

If you want to get a sense of the side of Arensky that Rimsky-Korsakov probably had in mind, then please try one of his four suites for two pianos - music where the elegant charm of the salon is heard. 

The Suite No. 1 in F major, Op. 15 is a characteristic example of his consummately-crafted light music. The opening Romance flutters around a four-note motif (a 'wobble' on a major second), throwing off a couple of pleasant if not particularly memorable melodies in the process. The central Valse has the best tune of the suite - and Arensky plugs away at it throughout the movement. The closing Polonaise has a certain flair and a tune that is also memorable (if straight from central casting). I must say, pleasant though it is, that the Suite isn't the sort of piece that leaves a great impression on me and, yes, the old insult that Arensky sounds like Tchaikovsky-plus-water certainly seems to hold water here. It sounds to me like Tchaikovsky ballet music on an off day, transcribed for pianos and sprinkled in glitter.

Still, as you hopefully heard when listening to the Piano Trio and the String Quartet, Arensky is well worth remembering for some things. Yes, he's no Tchaikovsky - but then who (besides the great man himself) is?

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