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ARENSKY: Piano Trio No. 1 in D Minor; Piano Trio No. 2 in F Minor; RACHMANINOV: Vocalise (arr. Conus) – Leonore Piano Trio – Hyperion

 ARENSKY: Piano Trio No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 32; Piano Trio No. 2 in F Minor, Op. 73; RACHMANINOV: Vocalise, Op. 34, No. 14 (arr. Conus) – Leonore Piano Trio – Hyperion CDA68015, 73:03 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] (3/11/14) ****:

Anton Arensky (1861-1906) had been a student of Rimsky-Korsakov who went on to win a Gold Medal for composition and win an appointment to the Moscow Conservatory in 1882, where he soon befriended Tchaikovsky, whom he admired. Arensky’s overt emulation of Tchaikovsky led Rimsky-Korsakov to predict Arensky’s name would become a mere footnote in Russian music.  With his penchant for heavy drinking and gambling, Arensky’s life soon dissipated after he resigned from the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1901, and he died of tuberculosis in Finland.

As Tchaikovsky had composed an epic Piano Trio in A Minor, Op. 50 in 1882 to celebrate the memory of Nicholas Rubinstein, so too Arensky composed his own Op. 32 Piano Trio in D Minor (1894) in memory of Karl Davidoff, a former director of the St. Petersburg Conservatory.  Davidoff, who died in 1899, had founded the Russian school of cello virtuosity, made enough of an impression for Arensky to conceive his Trio as a kind of cello-piano duo with violin obbligato. As Tchaikovsky had painted a musical portrait of Rubinstein, Arensky likewise employs a broad canvas in his opening Allegro moderato to capture the expansive spirit of Davidoff. Even the melodic material of the first movement echoes Tchaikovsky quite distinctly. Cello Gemma Rosefield exhibits considerable lyrical force in her playing, ably accompanied by Benjamin Nabarro, violin and Tim Horton, piano (rec. 9-11 March 2013).

The Scherzo: Allegro molto introduces a hesitant waltz figure on the violin, accompanied by a sparkling run from the keyboard. The cello swings into a lilting figure, again over pearls and high trills from the piano, and pizzicati from the cello, all in rather luxurious sonority. The cello, over a rustic piano, introduces a perfumed trio section whose rhythmic heaviness anticipates On the Trail by Grofe. The cello and violin assume mutes for the Adagio movement, an Elegia clearly in the spirit of Tchaikovsky Op. 48 Serenade. Both melancholic and texturally hazy, the lovely slow movement could be attributed to Borodin or Faure; the latter, especially in the middle section, which sounds much like the opening of the Dolly Suite, Op. 56. The Finale: Allegro non troppo intends to employ Tchakovsky’s penchant for cyclic form to bind much of the previous movements’ energies into a dramatic, well-rounded whole. Horton’s potent keyboard helps to drive the music forward, the explosive first motif’s serving as a ritornello to which the cello can offer a lyric counter-theme. Those of us who learned this fine music through the 1938 efforts of Eileen Joyce, Henri Temianka, and Antonio Sala will find this rendition equally gratifying, and the modern sound – courtesy of Phil Rowlands – resonates effectively in every measure.

Arensky composed his F Minor Piano Trio in 1903, among the last of his works. Again, in the course of the opening Allegro moderato, we feel a kinship to the serpentine melodies and modal harmonies of Gabriel Faure, although the virtuosity of expression for Arensky has become more seamless. The dotted figure of the first five notes becomes a motto theme for the composition as a whole. Arensky combines sonata-form with elements of variation to produce a melancholy, affecting work rife with personal nostalgia. The blend of Nabarro’s violin and Rosefield’s cello proves consistently ingratiating. When engineer Rowlands showcases Horton’s Steinway, the effects make equally lulling listening.

For the second movement Arensky inserts a truly melodious Romance in salon style, a duet for cello and violin over lilting piano chords. The gentle lyric evolves somberly, even erupting for a moment. The ternary form brings back the main melody a number of times, eventually invoking the motto from movement one prior to the last of four appearances by the Romance tune. Arensky’s penchant for the waltz returns for the Scherzo: Presto, but the texture carries an “impressionistic” affect, a sort of liquid version of young Debussy or Saint-Saens, especially in the piano’s runs. The Trio features the cello in a passionate lyric of old-world color, and even that moment incorporates the ubiquitous motto theme. 

The finale proffers a Tema con variazioni, a rather canonic, intractable tune of canonic aspirations that invokes six variants. Like his mentor, Tchaikovsky, Arensky imbues each variant with a distinctive character, including a Chopin waltz that has been awaiting violinist Nabarro’s plastic tone, and another waltz well-drawn after the epics penned by Tchaikovsky in his ballets. The motion of the second variant may have inspired the Scherzo from Stravinsky’s early E-flat Symphony, Op. 1. The muscular fourth variant seems to have borrowed a bit from the Schumann Piano Quintet.

Julius Conus (1869-1912), whom we know via the Jascha Heifetz interest in his Violin Concerto, transcribed Rachmaninov’s popular 1912 Vocalise for wordless soprano (Antinina Nezhdanova) in terms of the piano trio. The evolving theme, conceived in a manner reminiscent of Bach’s Air on the G String, sustains its sweet nostalgia in one long period, lilted and sentimentally rife with echoes. Each of the principals has his moment in the sun – or ardent gloom, if you prefer – and the effect remains predictably filled with Russian cream.

—Gary Lemco

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