A Dream on the Volga, Op.16 Overture
Nal and Damayanti, Op.47 Introduction
Suite No.3 Variations Op.33
Symphony No.2 in A, Op.22
Recorded April 2002 in Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: December 2003
CD No: CHANDOS CHAN 10024
Anton Stepanovich Arensky (1861-1906) conforms to type – his music is exactly what you would expect from a Russian composer working at this time – fantastic (in the true sense of the word), folk-song dominated, colourful, and passionate. Arensky’s teacher Rimsky-Korsakov was less than generous – “he will soon be forgotten” – and while it’s true that Arensky’s music maybe lacks ultimate distinction, his scores certainly evince an elegant craftsmanship that can be enjoyed on its own terms.
The grand opening to his four-act opera A Dream on the Volga establishes Arensky’s theatrical credentials, the overture itself covering a range of moods and demonstrating Arensky’s essential simplicity, subtlety and imagination, not least in his orchestrations. The introduction to Nal and Damayanti is another operatic taster, one with more fantasy.
The ambitious Suite No.3 is a sequence of variations lasting nearly 30 minutes. Initially there seems something rather monochrome about Arensky’s first variants on a theme with little in its favour. Equally disconcerting is Arensky’s symbiosis of Romantic, Classical and Baroque templates (the latter two presented in fanciful, pseudo-pastiche terms). While there’s no lack of attraction in Arensky’s take on the March and Waltz, the drawing-room epitome and rather academic distillation has one wondering. Then comes an 18th-century Minuet that chimes like a musical box – Arensky using pizzicato effects, piano, triangle and glockenspiel with great delicacy. One’s attention is grabbed. The following Scherzo dances lightly and contrasts with a noble and keenly felt funeral march. The closing polonaise isn’t in the league of Rimsky, Tchaikovsky or Liadov – but it’s a grand imperial ball nonetheless.
There’s nothing here more dextrously elfin-like than the Intermezzo, fireflies in the night, maybe, which are contrasted with a simply effective trio, a grandfather relating a tale of yore to his grandson – if nothing else, Arensky’s music paints pictures.
The symphony is a rather strange piece. This four-movement work, over in 22 minutes, both conforms to symphonic practice and yet seeks to re-mould the form. The ephemeral wisps of sound that close the (repeated) exposition exercise the intellect as to their place in the scheme of things – in a symphony that cuts the recapitulation in favour of introducing the nostalgic, rather starlit Romanza second movement with its beautiful cello solo (the player here is uncredited) and proceeds to an Intermezzo with gracious lines. The finale is, well … who said the first movement recapitulation was missing? An ingenious and very likeable piece.
Unpretentious, warm-hearted, melodious and subtly skilful: this seems to sum Arensky up. A second listen through this CD found more than on the first occasion. That’s good. Recommended, then. Fine performances and sound.