What a gentle introduction – the warm light of the autumn sun bathes a rural landscape in soft yellow, orange and brown colours, but here, sharp, black patches, rocks, splintering dead wood – contrasts mark the Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 32 that the Russian composer Anton Arensky composed in 1894 from the first bars on. It closely follows the Romantic language of a trio that had deeply impressed upon the composer: Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A minor, that I have presented in an earlier post.
Tchaikovsky conceived his trio as a memorial to his mentor, teacher and friend Nikolai Rubinstein, while Arensky wrote his trio in D minor to honour his (and Tchaikovsky’s) friend, the cellist Karl Davidov, the director of the Saint Petersburg Conservatory when Arensky was a student there, and who had died in 1889. And if I truly like Tchaikovsky’s trio, I must confess my admiration for Arensky’s work. Writing such a wonderful piece in the shadow of Tchaikovsky’s genius!
Rhapsodies and rhythmical outbursts
The first movement is marked by two warm lyrical and rhapsodic themes and a capricious transitional theme. The scherzo is a spirited, joyous waltz, while the third movement, the core of the trio, is a tender elegy introduced by a muted cello, supported by piano chord, and followed by a delicate, light, dreamlike piano part. The finale starts with a few dramatic bars, but quickly returns to a gentle, melancholical mood until the energetic piano/violin part interrupts the lyrical musing again – rhythmical outbursts mark this movement that takes up elements of the previous movement and binds them together.
Arensky, born in 1861, studied composition with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory and after his graduation he joined the Moscow Conservatory, where Tchaikovsky had taught. His pupils included such famous future composers as Alexander Skryabin, Reinhold Glière, and Sergei Rachmaninov. Like many Russian composers of his generation he fused Romantic ideas – in this case it is Felix Mendelsohn’s influence with traditional Russian elements.
“He needs stirring up”
Tchaikovsky, while no longer at the conservatory, had a benevolent eye on the young composer and asked Rimsky-Korsakov to replace one of his own pieces in an upcoming concerto by one from Arensky. “I like him so much and wish you would sometimes take an interest in him, for, as regards music, he venerates you more than anyone else. He needs stirring up; and such an impulse given by you would count for so much with him, because he loves and respects you”, Tchaikovsky wrote in a letter in 1887.
However Tchaikovsky did also see Arensky’s darker side: He was a loner, nervous, fragile, prone to gamble and to drink too much too often. Both tendancies would estrange him from Rimsky-Korsakov who would later say that “the man burned himself out, but he did not lack talent.” No, Arensky did not lack talent, and the recording of the Borodin Trio, shows you just what a talent passed away in 1906 at the age of 44 years.
© Charles Thibo