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Piano Trio No 1 in D minor, Op 32
1894; in memory of Karl Davidoff

'Arensky: Piano Trios' (CDA68015)
Arensky: Piano Trios
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Movement 1: Allegro moderato
Movement 2: Scherzo: Allegro molto
Movement 3: Elegia: Adagio
Movement 4: Finale: Allegro non troppo

Piano Trio No 1 in D minor, Op 32
Tchaikovsky’s friendship and music had a powerful impact on Arensky, and one work that made a deep impression was Tchaikovsky’s epic Piano Trio of 1881–2, subtitled ‘in memory of a great artist’ and composed as a memorial for the pianist Nikolai Rubinstein. The genre had hardly existed in Russia before this work, and with it Tchaikovsky initiated a tradition of elegiac or commemorative trios. Rachmaninov, for example, composed a pair of Trios élégiaques in 1892–3, the second of them in memory of Tchaikovsky himself. Just one year later Arensky composed his own Piano Trio No 1 in D minor Op 32, conceived as a memorial to his (and Tchaikovsky’s) friend, the cellist Karl Davidoff, who had been director of the St Petersburg Conservatoire when Arensky was a student there, and who had died in 1889. Davidoff is regarded as the founder of the Russian school of cello playing, and Arensky’s dedication accounts for the fact that the cello plays such a prominent role, having most of the principal themes and often seeming to eclipse the violin in importance; at times this work might almost be described as a duo for cello and piano with obbligato violin.

The lyrical and rhapsodic theme that opens the expansive first movement—stated by the violin at first, but taken up by the cello and then elaborated by both instruments in duet—has been believed by some commentators to be a portrait of the generous and outgoing Davidoff. Here, as throughout the movement, accents of regret and melancholy can be detected among the melodic riches. A quicker, more capricious transitional theme, rather dance-like, leads to a warmly expressive second subject announced by the cello, and a more dramatic theme, with the piano to the fore, rounds off the exposition, which is repeated in full. The development is comparatively short and mainly based on the opening theme and the dance-like idea, working up to a full-scale recapitulation and a quiet, elegiac coda.

The second movement Scherzo is in the form of a scintillating waltz, full of the spirit of the dance as well as good humour and delightful bursts of bravura from all three instruments, especially the piano. In this whimsical confection Arensky largely bases the music around a little stuttering figure in the violin, swooping scales and sparkling keyboard decorations. The cello leads off a more ponderous but still humorous trio section in which it seems the dancers are doing their best not to be wrong-footed. The waltz returns, and stutters to its end.

The Adagio slow movement, titled Elegia, is the heart of the D minor Trio. Muted cello, supported by piano chords, introduces a theme at once doleful and tender; the violin is also muted, and takes it up before the two instruments share the theme together. The grief-stricken atmosphere is unmistakable, though there is a certain dream-like quality to the music, too—it could almost be by Fauré rather than any Russian composer. The piano then has a contrasting, almost childlike theme supported by gentle figuration in the string instruments. Roles are reversed as violin and cello take up this second theme against different figuration from the piano. When the first theme returns on the strings the piano part is different again until the coda, where cello and piano are heard as at the movement’s opening.

The finale, whose function is very much to pull together and round off the work’s disparate threads, begins with a dramatic, even explosive theme full of rhythmic momentum. This idea injects drive and impetus throughout the movement, although it really functions as a ritornello between which Arensky places reminders of previous movements. Soon, for instance, we hear a lyrical tune that resembles the main theme of the Elegia, and a further helping of the dramatic theme simply introduces the gentle music from Elegia’s central section. The ritornello idea itself is then developed at more length, and this time leads, in a mood of nostalgic reminiscence, to the opening theme of the entire work. The finale’s theme breaks back in, insistently, and drives the work to an exciting but rather grim conclusion.

from notes by Calum MacDonald © 2014

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Details for CDA68015 track 3
Elegia: Adagio
Recording date
11 March 2013
Recording venue
Concert Hall, Wyastone Estate, Monmouth, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Tim Oldham
Recording engineer
Phil Rowlands
Hyperion usage
  1. Arensky: Piano Trios (CDA68015)
    Disc 1 Track 3
    Release date: March 2014
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