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ANTON ARENSKY (1861-1906)

Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 32

January 27, 2019: Pinchas Zukerman Trio

Arensky was influenced by some of the greatest figures of Russian music: Rimsky-Korsakov, his composition teacher at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and Tchaikovsky, his colleague at the Moscow Conservatory, where Arensky taught upon his graduation. In turn he instructed other great Russians in Moscow, notably Rachmaninoff, Skryabin, and Glière.

Returning to St. Petersburg in 1895, Arensky become director of the Imperial Chapel on Balakirev’s recommendation. From 1901 on, receiving a pension from the chapel, Arensky devoted himself to composing and to appearances as a conductor and pianist. Having been addicted to alcohol and gambling for some time, his life became more and more disorganized, according to Rimsky-Korsakov. He spent his final years in a tuberculosis sanatorium in Finland, where he died in 1906. Of his three operas, the first, Son na Volge (A dream on the Volga) achieved the greatest success, but his reputation generally rests on a few shorter works, such as the present D minor Trio, and short piano pieces at which he excelled.

Arensky composed his D minor Piano Trio in 1894 and dedicated it to Karl Davïdov (1838–1889), who had been principal cellist of the St. Petersburg opera and later director of the conservatory there. The work might be classified in the “chestnut” category because of its familiarity, but this is a familiarity that is sensed even by one who is hearing the piece for the first time. The work evokes other composers in certain places—the trio of the Scherzo, for example, brings Saint-Saëns’s Second Piano Concerto to mind and the opening theme of the Finale suggests the “Polonaise” in the last movement of Tchaikovsky’s Third Orchestral Suite. Despite these influences, Arensky’s Trio could not have withstood the test of time without its own distinct identity.

The first movement, in the tradition of late German Romanticism, unfolds in a grand sonata form, with the striking feature of an adagio statement of the opening theme to close the movement. The imaginative Scherzo, placed second, frames a trio that shows the Russian-Slavic-German fondness for an idealized kind of waltz.

The slow Elegia, its somber mood enhanced by muted strings, is the movement that particularly pays tribute to the memory of Davïdov. It follows ternary form with a varied return of the “A” section. The Finale, a real tour de force, immediately dispels the mood with its exuberant polonaise-like main theme. The coda unifies the entire work, recalling the theme of the middle section of the Elegia and the first theme of the first movement in its adagio setting before the fast-paced conclusion.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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