Notes and Editorial Reviews
Suites for 2 Pianos: Nos. 1–4
Natalia Lavrova, Vassily Primakov (pn)
LP 1001 (71:12)
Here is something perhaps not unique, but surely a bit unusual and definitely interesting. I admit up front that my acquaintance with the music of Russian composer Anton Arensky (1861–1906) has been limited to his two symphonies (recorded for Chandos by Vassili Sinaisky and the BBC Philharmonic), to his piano concertos (recorded by Stephen Coombs for Volume 4 of Hyperion’s Romantic Piano Concerto series), and to a
number of his chamber works. But this is my first encounter with any of Arensky’s music for piano.
Arensky studied under Rimsky-Korsakov at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, but he didn’t make common cause with the nationalist circle of Russian composers at the time; he gravitated toward the more cosmopolitan, European-leaning Russianness of Tchaikovsky. In fact, an amusing anecdote ascribes a fit of impolitic pique to Rimsky-Korsakov who, after all, had been Arensky’s teacher. On seeing his former student abandon the nationalist camp, Rimsky-Korsakov is reported to have said, “In his youth Arensky did not escape some influence from me; later the influence came from Tchaikovsky. He will quickly be forgotten.” Rimsky-Korsakov may have been right about Arensky, for though he is reasonably well represented on record, as far as his works being programmed in concert goes, he remains at the periphery of the mainstream repertoire.
In some very superficial ways—like the use of French movement titles—Arensky’s four two-piano suites are a bit like keyboard analogs to Tchaikovsky’s four orchestral suites. No two are quite alike in layout, movement types, or musical content, yet they purport to capture elements of the stylized dances encountered in 18th-century suites, especially those of French origin. The analogy breaks down, however, when one considers the particulars of Arensky’s musical dialect. In the best sense of the term, these are salon pieces, technically advanced ones requiring considerable virtuosic skill, to be sure, but materially lightweight; and despite movement titles like Valse, Gavotte, and Polonaise, most of this music sounds rather far removed from its dance roots. Perhaps one can get a better handle on these suites from those movements to which Arensky, like Couperin, assigned descriptive,
titles such as “La Coquette,” “Le Savant,” and “Le Rêve.”
I’d be less than honest if I said that I found any of these four suites to rise above the level of well made and certainly pianistically challenging divertissement-type music that would not have been out of place in 19th-century French and pre-revolutionary, aristocratic Russian salons. Nonetheless, it would be wrong to blame the messengers— Natalia Lavrova and Vassily Primakov—for the music. Like the talented and imaginative chefs they are, they work wonders with the ingredients they’ve been given.
Primakov, in particular, has been a frequent visitor to these pages in recent issues, appearing in a wide range of repertoire from Mozart and Beethoven to Schumann, Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninoff. His technique is somewhere near the top of the awesome scale, and he brings a personal touch to everything he does.
Lavrova is new to me and, if I’m not mistaken, to these pages as well. Born in Moscow in 1981, she has won paragraphs of awards and has an active concert career. She is also on the faculty of the Piano School of New York City.
An interesting feature of this CD is that Lavrova and Primakov take turns playing the piano I and piano II parts, but technically and tonally they are so well matched, you wouldn’t know who was on first and who was on second unless you read the disc’s track listing.
No doubt you’ve gathered by now that I’m not very responsive to these two-piano suites, which is not a blanket judgment of Arensky as a composer. In fact, chamber music seems to have been his forte; his Piano Trio No. 1 in D Minor, for example, makes a powerful musical statement and a lasting impression. Personal tastes and preference aside, however, these two-piano works are important contributions to a medium that hadn’t attracted a lot of interest until Arensky turned his attention to it, and not just in these suites. One must acknowledge his contribution to the genre, especially with regard to the role it played in elevating the two-piano concert in Russia. And while these suites may not be Arensky’s greatest music, Lavrova and Primakov’s playing of it might well persuade you otherwise. Strongly recommended then for a dazzling display of two-piano works by two phenomenal pianists.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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