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Hyperion Records

CDH55311 - Arensky: Piano Music
The Donskoi Monastery (1852) by Iossif A Weiss
CDH55311
(Originally issued on CDA67066)

Recording details: March 1998
All Saints' Church, East Finchley, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Amanda Hurton
Engineered by Tony Faulkner
Release date: February 2011
DISCID: 8B10441B
Total duration: 68 minutes 27 seconds

'Intimately played and warmly recorded' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Coombs produces a lovely sound, is a powerful virtuoso, and is an elegant stylist. Hyperion has given him superb recorded sound' (American Record Guide)

'An enchanting and beautifully played recital' (Hi-Fi News)

Russian Piano Portraits
Piano Music
Prélude: Largo  [3'49]
Scherzo: Allegro  [3'13]
Romance: Andante  [2'40]
Étude: Allegro  [1'49]
Étude: Moderato  [2'27]

Stephen Coombs's 'Russian Piano Portraits' series turns its attention to solo piano music by Anton Arensky, one of the more shadowy figures of the Russian pianistic pantheon. Bon viveur extraordinaire, Arensky lived life in Moscow to the full—and to the disgust of colleagues such as Rimsky-Korsakov—but he was also an important teacher whose pupils included Rachmaninov, Scriabin, Glière and Grechaninov. Indeed, it was Arensky, together with Taneyev (successor to Rubinstein as director of the Moscow Conservatory), who shaped a situation in 1880s Moscow which finally allowed the city to rival St Petersburg in terms of its musical culture.

Arensky's piano pieces have an easy charm and lyrical breadth of melodic invention. They also show rare inventiveness. There is a quality that is both nostalgic and surprising, reassuringly familiar yet unconventional in harmonic and melodic construction. This music has the power to move the emotions, not perhaps in a dramatic or passionate way, but by its rather personal reflective quality.


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
There is hardly a more shadowy figure in the history of Russian music than Anton Stepanovich Arensky. A quick glance through the index of many a Russian composer’s biography will reveal persistent, though unsubstantial, references to this neglected composer. You will search in vain for a biography in English and even collections of Russian biographical studies such as those by M D Calvocoressi and Gerald Abraham remain stubbornly silent on the subject of Arensky.

One of the most important sources of information concerning the life and career of Arensky comes from Rimsky-Korsakov’s memoirs My Musical Life, first published in St Petersburg in 1909, and it is perhaps worth reproducing in full Rimsky-Korsakov’s curt summary of his former pupil’s life written in 1906, shortly after Arensky’s death:

In the Autumn, death carried off A S Arensky. A former pupil of mine, upon being graduated from the St Petersburg Conservatory he had become professor at the Moscow Conservatory and had lived in Moscow a number of years. According to all testimony, his life had run a dissipated course between wine and card-playing, yet his activity as a composer was most fertile. At one time he had been the victim of a nervous ailment, which had, however, evidently left no lasting effect. Having left the staff of professors of the Moscow Conservatory in the nineties, he removed to St Petersburg and for some time was director of the Court Chapel, succeeding Balakirev. At this post, too, the same mode of life continued, though on a reduced scale. On leaving the Chapel, after Count A D Sheryemetyev had been appointed head of the Chapel, Arensky found himself in an enviable position: listed as some privy-commission functionary in the Ministry of the Court, he drew a pension of some six thousand roubles, and was absolutely free to work at his composing. He did work much at composition, but that is just where he began to burn the candle at both ends. Revels, card-playing, health undermined by this mode of living, galloping consumption as the final result, dying at Nice, and death at last in Finland. Upon settling in St Petersburg, Arensky had always been on friendly terms with Byelayev’s circle, but had kept aloof, all by himself, as a composer, recalling Tchaikovsky in this respect. By the nature of his talent and his tastes as composer he was the closest approximation to A G Rubinstein, but he was inferior in the force of talent for composition, though in instrumentation, as the child of more modern times, he outdistanced A G. In his youth Arensky had not escaped entirely my influence; later he fell under that of Tchaikovsky. He will be soon forgotten.

So here in a single paragraph we have an assessment of one of Russia’s most successful composers by his teacher and contemporary, Rimsky-Korsakov. However, should we take such a dismissive résumé at face value?

To start with, Arensky did not die in the Autumn but on 25 February 1906 (O.S.), a strange error considering that the above account was written, apparently, within months of his death. Anton Stepanovich Arensky was born in Novgorod on 12 July 1861. Before entering the St Petersburg Conservatory in 1879, he had been taught by his mother, herself a talented pianist, and encouraged by his father, a doctor and amateur cellist. Rimsky-Korsakov, elsewhere in his memoirs, remembers Arensky’s student days:

Besides Ippolitov-Ivanov, there graduated from my class in the Conservatory A S Arensky … subsequently our well-known talented composer … I shall say by the way that Arensky, when still a pupil in my class, composed—partly as volunteer work and partly as class assignment—several numbers of ‘Voyevoda’ [Son na Volgye—‘Dream on the Volga’] after Ostrovsky; these later formed part of his opera on this subject. I vividly recall his playing, in the classroom, of the scene at the bridge, the cradle song, etc.

Here, Rimsky-Korsakov clearly seems impressed by his pupil’s talent and, indeed, entrusted Arensky while still a student with a share in preparing his vocal score of The Snowmaiden.

Arensky graduated from the St Petersburg Conservatory with a gold medal for composition in 1882 and immediately secured a post as professor of harmony and counterpoint at the Moscow Conservatory. There could hardly have been a greater contrast between the sophisticated world of St Petersburg and the deeply provincial Moscow—at this period still little more than an overgrown village. The writer and musician Leonid Sabaneyev described Moscow at this time:

Moscow was, after all, a provincial town with its patriarchal mode of life, with its quiet streets and little houses, which were only beginning to be replaced by many-storeyed modern buildings. Besides, Moscow was inveterately conservative in its tastes and tendencies; narrow in its horizons. Of the Russian National School, i.e. of Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, and particularly Musorgsky, even the musicians in Moscow had only a remote idea. Wagner was viewed as a sort of musical Antichrist …

Moscow differed from St Petersburg in another aspect—its reputation for riotous living. It was a city of sharp contrasts, fiercely religious, noisy and mournful. Sober days would be followed by riotous nights amongst the gypsies and in the many Moscow inns. Tchaikovsky had already fallen victim to Moscow’s unique charms. In the late 1860s and early 1870s hard work would alternate with endless nights talking, carousing and worse! Tchaikovsky’s letters at this time are full of references to the side-effects of his social life: ‘Coming home late with an overloaded stomach five days running’; ‘spending two evenings running at the English Club’ (a notorious gambling club in Moscow which was also a favourite haunt of Nikolai Rubinstein, director of the Moscow Conservatory). Rachmaninov, Arensky’s pupil, also found it difficult to resist Moscow’s schizophrenic nature. Alexander Goedicke, Medtner’s cousin and contemporary of Rachmaninov, recalled that ‘he loved church singing and frequently, even in winter, he got up at seven and, taking a cab in the darkness, drove off to the Androniev monastery, where he attended early liturgy, listening to the old chants sung by the monks in parallel fifths. It could well happen that in the evening of the same day he would go to a symphony concert and from there to the restaurant Yar or Strelna and stay there till after midnight listening to the singing of the gypsies …’.

What surprise, then, that Anton Arensky, still in his early twenties, should have followed a lifestyle that was so common among his contemporaries? Rimsky-Korsakov was by nature a temperate and strictly moral man and, not surprisingly, strongly disapproved of the dissolute life in Moscow. In recounting his first visit to Moscow in 1867, Rimsky-Korsakov mentions Balakirev’s more pragmatic appraisal of the situation: ‘Balakirev had always shown antagonism to Anton Rubinstein’s activity, denying his talent as a composer and belittling as much as possible his great gifts as a pianist. As a pianist of higher standing, in contrast to him, Nikolai Grigorevich Rubinstein was usually mentioned. At the same time the latter was pardoned his artistic indolence and tempestuous life, both explained as the result of the queer Moscow life.’ It is a pity that Rimsky-Korsakov could not find the generosity of spirit to understand the influence of the ‘queer Moscow life’ in Arensky’s case.

So what were the reasons for the antagonism shown by Rimsky-Korsakov towards Arensky? Certainly one cannot discount the possibility that the problem was purely one of personality and yet Arensky seems to have been well-liked and respected by the majority of his musical contemporaries. Indeed Rimsky-Korsakov’s reference to Arensky having ‘always been on friendly terms with Byelayev’s circle’ is an interesting one. Belaieff (the proper transliteration of this name is debatable; however, the latter spelling has been affixed generally due to his publishing house of M P Belaieff) was a highly influential music publisher who, from 1882, quickly established a circle of composers around himself. In time, a host of younger composers (many of them former students of Rimsky-Korsakov), including Glazunov, Liadov, Blumenfeld, Ippolitov-Ivanov and Arensky, were beating a path to Belaieff’s house where they would meet each Friday to play and hear string quartets. Supper would appear at 1 a.m., followed by a play-through of new compositions and finally, at three in the morning, Belaieff would continue the festivities at a local restaurant with those who could keep up. Rimsky-Korsakov was hardly impressed and, indeed, in time became almost totally estranged from these social gatherings.

While still in Moscow, Arensky proved to be an important teacher—his pupils included Rachmaninov, Scriabin, Gličre and Grechaninov. Indeed, it is in this period, 1882 to 1889, that Moscow finally moved forward musically. If Tchaikovsky provided the impetus, it was Arensky, together with Taneyev (successor to N Rubinstein as director of the Moscow Conservatory), who shaped the situation to allow Moscow finally to rival St Petersburg in musical culture. Arensky’s reward in 1889 was the post of Director of the Imperial Chapel in St Petersburg.

Throughout the nineteenth century, the Imperial Chapel had been the supreme authority on Church music and essentially prescribed what was and was not allowed to be sung in churches throughout the land. For some time it had become a sterile organization promoting the German harmonies of the 1830s and ignoring Russia’s own rich heritage of chant. Balakirev had held the post from 1883, bringing in Rimsky-Korsakov as his assistant, but they had accomplished little to improve the musical quality of Church music. Relationships between the two men slowly soured and in November 1893 Rimsky-Korsakov resigned his position. Suffering from stress and increasingly isolated by depression, Rimsky-Korsakov was at the lowest point in his creative life. Meanwhile, from 1889 until 1893, Arensky had held a position on the Synodal Council of Church Music at Moscow. If St Petersburg had failed to improve the situation concerning Church music, Moscow, by contrast, was gradually winning reforms. By the time Arensky took over as Director of the Imperial Chapel (a position Rimsky-Korsakov had once coveted), the new movement from Moscow was eclipsing the old guard in St Petersburg—yet another example of Moscow’s resurgence and another tension between the former teacher and pupil.

Arensky left the Imperial Chapel in 1901 with a state pension of 6,000 roubles a year; Rimsky-Korsakov had only received a salary of 2,300 roubles as assistant at the Chapel. As a composer, Arensky had been held in high regard by Tchaikovsky, who pleaded strongly with Rimsky-Korsakov on behalf of his former student. Indeed, in 1886, Tchaikovsky even went to the lengths of suggesting that Rimsky-Korsakov should substitute one of Arensky’s works in place of his own Romeo and Juliet fantasy overture—one of Tchaikovsky’s most popular works and a great favourite with Rimsky-Korsakov. Not surprisingly, all this pleading fell on deaf ears and in December 1906, less than a year after Arensky’s death, Taneyev was again trying to convince Rimsky-Korsakov of Arensky’s worth. Having arrived at Rimsky-Korsakov’s house, Taneyev proceeded to play a large quantity of Arensky’s piano music in front of the assembled guests, finally engaging Rimsky-Korsakov in heated debate over Arensky’s music.

In the light of the above, Rimsky-Korsakov’s words ‘He will be soon forgotten’ appear to be a rather petulant statement of his own stubborn stand against Arensky rather than a generally held opinion at the time. However, there is no doubt that Arensky’s music has to a large extent been forgotten; only now are we beginning to explore his rich legacy.

In a career that spanned barely twenty-five years, Arensky composed three operas, a ballet, several orchestral works (including a Piano Concerto, a Violin Concerto and two symphonies), chamber music, songs, choral works and an extensive list of works for the piano. He was a gifted and successful pianist and all his piano works show a masterly command of the genre. Despite being associated with the Moscow school, whose musical models were more often German than Russian, Arensky’s music shows that song-like quality best expressed by the Russian word pesennost. There is no exact translation for this word, but pesennost sums up the very ‘Russian-ness’ which is at the same time so distinctive and elusive. It is the spirit that has permeated through the Russian psyche—through folk-song and the ancient znamenny chants of the Church—a stream of unique and precious melodic invention that ran hidden for centuries among the remote villages of Russia only to burst into the open again with the music of Glinka. Tchaikovsky’s censure of Arensky’s use of five-four rhythm was never repeated by the nationalistic school based in St Petersburg, for they were more aware of the prevalence of this rhythm in Russian folk-song.

Many of Arensky’s piano pieces could be dismissed as salon music—with their easy charm and lyrical melodic invention. However, much of this music shows a rare inventiveness. There is a quality that is both nostalgic and surprising, reassuringly familiar yet unconventional in harmonic and melodic construction. This music has the power to move the emotions, not perhaps in a dramatic or passionate way, but by its rather personal reflective quality. Arensky’s music may not be of the greatest originality but there is no question that it has a distinctive stamp. Arensky’s contribution is to reflect on the achievements of other greater figures, such as Tchaikovsky, and to add his own personal comment to what he has found.

Stephen Coombs © 1998


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