Arensky’s lyrical memorial to a Russian cellist

Autumn colours. © Charles Thibo © Charles Thibo

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

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de Chareli

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