Born in Novgorod in 1861, Anton Arensky belonged to the generation of Russian composers midway between Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov (that included Glazunov, Gretchaninov and Liadov) and who came to prominence in the closing decade of the nineteenth century. By the time he was nine his precocious gifts had expressed themselves in several songs and piano pieces, and in 1879 the family moved to St Petersburg where he enrolled at its Conservatoire. As a student he was notoriously lazy, but such were his talents that by the time he completed his training in 1882 (with a Gold Medal for his cantata The Forest Czar) he had also written a Piano Concerto, its startling virtuosity anticipating a glittering future.
Arensky’s early promise never quite translated into lasting achievements. In Rimsky-Korsakov’s memoirs, Chronicle of my musical life, Arensky was bluntly dismissed with “he will soon be forgotten”, yet the novelist Leo Tolstoy said of him “among the new composers he is the best, he is simple and melodious”. This observation might well describe the distinctive but relatively modest contribution Arensky made in the field of chamber music – all written for strings or piano and strings that amply demonstrate the composer’s lyric and expressive gifts.
The second of Arensky’s two string quartets is a sombre, elegiac work in three movements. Written in 1894 in memory of Tchaikovsky, (who had died the previous year), String Quartet No. 2 is unusual in its scoring for single violin, viola and two cellos. These rich sonorities are fully explored in the repeated chords (based on a Russian Orthodox funeral chant) that open the work. Sobriety of expression soon gives way to tenderness with the appearance of the delicate first theme taken by the violin which, freed from its lowest register, soon discovers higher reaches in passionate outbursts. After a pause five repeated cello Gs introduce a gentle second theme which, after an agitated passage leads to a re-examination of the first theme – by turns intense and elegiac. Two further appearances of the funeral chant enclose one last appearance of the two main themes.
Arensky next turns to Tchaikovsky’s popular Legend, Op. 54, also known in its choral version as Crown of Roses, for a set of seven variations which, like the Quintet, are alternately lyrical and energetic. The cello initiates both the first variation and the second, now with much agitation in the upper strings. Shifting to a warm E major, the viola carries the theme in the third variation, while in the fourth, fragments of the theme are exchanged in a mood of nervous energy. Tranquil elaborations characterize the fifth, (its tune now augmented and assigned to the cello), while the sixth is a tour-de-force of string writing. The seventh (with strings muted) is elegiac and a chant-like coda draws the variations to a somber conclusion.
This tone continues into the final movement in which Arensky integrates a theme from a Requiem funeral mass (heard at the outset) with a patriotic folk-song “Slava Bogu” (Glory to God) transformed into a lively fugato. After its intense development, with quasi-orchestral sonorities, the slow chant briefly returns before Arensky unleashes a triumphant reprise of the fugato theme and celebrates in grand style the memory of his hero Tchaikovsky.
Notable recordings include the recent release by Naxos Records by the Spectrum Concerts Berlin.
Spectrum Concerts Berlin was founded by the American cellist Frank Dodge in 1988 and has become one of Germany’s most significant voices in the world of chamber music. Reviewers have showered praise for years, both in reviews of their live performances at the Philharmonie’s Kammermusiksaal, and of their recordings. Spectrum Concerts Berlin members include, in addition to those on this recording, Janine Jansen, Valeriy Sokolov, Julia-Maria Kretz, Amihai Grosz, Hartmut Rohde, Torleif Thedéen, Frank Dodge, Lars Wouters van den Oudenweijer, Jacob Katsnelson, Naomi Niskala, Ya-Fei Chuang, Robert Levin, and many others. The mission of the organization expanded in 2006 with the opening of Spectrum Concerts Berlin – USA, Inc., a sister organization based in New York City which presents Spectrum’s work to New York audiences at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall, the Times Center and other venues. Most recently, members of Spectrum Concerts Berlin have been involved with helping rebuild musical life in Kosovo.