Movement 1: Allegro moderato
Movement 2: Variations: Andante
Movement 3: Scherzo: Allegro vivace
Movement 4: Finale (in modo antico): Allegro moderato
The theme of the slow movement variations is the old French wedding song ‘Sur les ponts d’Avignon j’ai ouï chanter la belle’ (a different tune and words from ‘Sur le pont d’Avignon, on y danse’, which generations of British and French children have learned at school but which only appeared in the 1850s). In some of its melodic turns the theme actually resembles the Russian folksong used by Tchaikovsky in String Quartet No 1, or indeed Tchaikovsky’s Legend (from the Children’s Songs Op 54), so delightfully varied by Arensky in his String Quartet No 2. The alternately stormy and reflective variations are resourceful and engaging, perhaps the most memorable transformation being the graceful waltz—an Arenskian speciality.
As so often in Russian instrumental music, the Scherzo is bubbly and capricious in a post-Mendelssohnian way, though not as fairy-light, with much use of bouncy repeated-note chords in the piano, while the trio section is marked by graceful parallel-motion chords.
The Finale opens in Neo-Bachian vein (in modo antico, as the score has it). Arensky taught fugue as well as harmony at the Conservatoire, his students there including the young Rachmaninov, who found the classes unbearably dry and was relieved when Taneyev took over the class. As if to tell us not to take this display of scholasticism too seriously, Arensky suddenly puts a stop to it. The strings recall the second movement’s French chanson, itself now treated quasi-fugally. This in turn leads back to the main first movement theme. Far from this heralding a grand résumé, however, the conclusion is soon upon us. Its somewhat tacked-on quality surely has to take part of the blame for the Quintet’s relative lack of popularity—such a shame, considering the attractiveness of so much of the preceding music.
from notes by David Fanning © 2013