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Is there another composer whose best-known creation by far is a piano trio, tonight’s Op. 32? And who is this Arensky fellow, anyway? He did write other music – even another piano trio – including his once-popular Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky and a waltz occasionally heard as an encore on a two-piano recital, when we are fortunate enough to encounter one. Of the works by this composer that have fallen by the wayside are three operas, a pair of symphonies, concertos for piano and for violin, choral works, and a large number of songs.
His influence as a teacher was, however, profound. From 1882 on he was the professor in charge of harmony and counterpoint at the Moscow Conservatory, numbering among his pupils Scriabin, Rachmaninoff, and Glière.
Born into a musical family in Novgorod, Arensky entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1879, studying composition with Rimsky-Korsakov, whereupon he moved to Moscow to take up his teaching position. In 1895 he moved back to St. Petersburg, there to assume the prestigious and well-paying job of director of the Imperial Chapel. Resigning in 1902, he spent the remainder of his days composing, appearing as a pianist and conductor – and drinking and gambling. He died of tuberculosis in 1906 in a Finnish sanatorium at the age of 45.
Where in his Second Quartet Prokofiev’s “Russianness” is drawn from a quasi-oriental corner of the empire, Arensky’s major influence – notably in this Trio – is the cosmopolitan Tchaikovsky. He was not drawn to the exotic nationalism of Rimsky-Korsakov.
The Trio in D minor was written in 1894 in memory of Karl Davidov (no relation to Vladimir Davidov, Tchaikovsky’s brother-in-law), a celebrated cellist and director of the St. Petersburg Conservatory.
It is in four movements, lushly lyrical and poignant in the main, the first movement built on three themes – darkly dramatic, broadly lyrical, and tempestuous. The subsequent scherzo, Mendelssohnian in its lightness, is the only movement in the major mode and has as its trio a delicious, sentimental waltz in the manner of Tchaikovsky. Movement three, “Elegia,” is – as its title would indicate – the most serious of the four. The strings are muted, appropriately for the dedicatory circumstances, and the central section is a dreamlike reverie of exquisite tenderness. The finale opens with the most intensely dramatic theme in the entire work, replacing the air of lamentation with a combative stance, but balanced by a reminiscence of the “Elegia” theme, then a reprise of the first movement’s principal theme and a short, super-animated coda.
Herbert Glass is the English-language annotator for the Salzburg Festival and a contributor to musical periodicals in the United States and Europe.