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Hyperion Records

CDH55426 - Arensky: String Quartet; Tchaikovsky: Souvenir de Florence
Panorama del Giardino di Boboli by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875)
CDH55426
(Originally issued on CDA66648)

Recording details: February 1993
St George's, Brandon Hill, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Keith Warren & Nick Morgan
Release date: June 2013
DISCID: 610E3E07
Total duration: 60 minutes 43 seconds

'A rarity of great charm and sincerity … a fine disc in excellent sound' (Classic CD)

'The Arensky Quartet is a lovely piece … performance and sound are superb. I cannot imagine better performances of either the Tchaikovsky or the Arensky' (Fanfare, USA)

Arensky: String Quartet; Tchaikovsky: Souvenir de Florence
Allegro vivace  [7'26]
Moderato  [10'11]
Finale  [4'08]

Tchaikovsky’s virtuoso string sextet ‘Souvenir de Florence’ is one of the most popular works in the string chamber music repertoire. It has been recorded here with Arensky’s Quartet Op 35 which was dedicated to the memory of Tchaikovsky.


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For three months, early in 1890, Peter Tchaikovsky went to Florence where he devoted all his energy to composing his opera The Queen of Spades. Work went quickly and within six weeks of returning to St Petersburg the opera was completed. ‘Now I am terribly, indescribably tired!!!’, Tchaikovsky wrote to his cousin, ‘and what do I need now to get me back to normal? To enjoy myself, to go on the binge? Not at all! I am going to start straight away on a large new work, but of a completely different kind; a string sextet.’

The work was sketched in under two weeks and fully scored in a further eleven days, but at a private performance in St Petersburg on 7 December 1890 neither he nor the musicians in the audience were entirely happy with the score, and after the first public performance three days later at the St Petersburg Chamber Music Society (which had commissioned the Sextet), Tchaikovsky laid the score aside. A year later the work was revised. The biggest changes were in the third movement, where a central triplet fugato passage was totally re-written, and in the fourth movement whose second theme was given a broader and more elaborate profile. In August Tchaikovsky sent the score for publication, and the first performance of the revised Sextet, with Leopold Auer leading, was given on 6 December 1892 at the St Petersburg Imperial Russian Musical Society.

The composition of Souvenir de Florence was not easy for Tchaikovsky. ‘I’m composing with unbelievable effort’, he wrote to his brother Modest on the day he started work. ‘I’m hampered not by lack of ideas but by the novelty of the form. There must be six independent and at the same time homogeneous parts.’ And to his friend Ziloti: ‘I constantly feel as though … I am in fact writing for the orchestra and just rearranging it for six string instruments.’ Perhaps Tchaikovsky never really solved this problem. Interpreters of the work today still face the conflicting demands of an orchestral or soloistic approach, and yet this encourages performers towards a virtuoso style which has helped place the Souvenir de Florence among the most popular works in the string chamber music repertoire.

The glorious duet for violin and cello in the Adagio was outlined in Florence during work on The Queen of Spades and probably gives the piece its title, but the whole work has an over-riding ‘Russian’ feel. The first movement, which was conceived in 1887 soon after Tchaikovsky had completed his opera The Enchantress, is rich in texture and exudes boldness and warmth. Folk-like melodies dominate the third and fourth movements, and it is the finale’s central fugato section which led Tchaikovsky to admit, ‘It is terrible how thrilled I am with my own work …’

Encouraged by his mother, herself an excellent pianist, Anton Arensky had already started composing by the time he was nine years old. He entered the St Petersburg Conservatory in 1879, studying composition with Rimsky-Korsakov, and graduated with a gold medal in only three years. He subsequently became a professor of harmony and counterpoint at the Moscow Conservatory where his pupils were to include Rachmaninov, Scriabin and Gličre. In 1895 he became Director of the the Imperial Chapel in St Petersburg, a post he held for six years and which he left with a generous pension which allowed him to compose. But Arensky had for years been addicted to drinking and gambling; undermined by this lifestyle his health disintegrated and, at the age of 45, he died of tuberculosis.

The Quartet, Opus 35, for violin, viola and two cellos is dedicated to the memory of Tchaikovsky. By his use of quotation Arensky suggests a simple but effective programme, which acts both as a moving homage to the older composer and as a monument to Arensky’s own unique skill and imagination. The first movement, both tender and passionate, opens and closes with the simple theme of an orthodox psalm. This theme is developed and elaborated in the course of the movement, and its sombre, funereal atmosphere exploits the deep sonority offered by the unusual scoring. The central variations, based on Tchaikovsky’s ‘Legend’ (from Children’s Songs Op 54) and now more familiar in their later arrangement for string orchestra, are a personal tribute to his friend and mentor. Arensky seems to be most at ease with this form, embellishing the theme skilfully with both wit and pathos. The Finale is most unusual. Its opening theme, from a Russian funeral Mass, gives way to a celebratory folksong associated with the coronation and majesty of the Tsar and previously used by Beethoven in his Quartet Op 59 No 2 and by Mussorgsky in Boris Godounov. By using this music in this context Arensky is perhaps crowning Tchaikovsky ‘Tsar of Music’, and paying his greatest tribute.

Tim Boulton © 1993

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