Anton Arensky: Piano Concerto in Fm, op. 2

the above performed by Alexei Cherkasov, piano, USSR Central Television and All-Union Radio Symphony Orchestra under Alexander Nekrasov

(the recording I listened to) performed by the BBC Scottish Symphony under Jerzy Maksymiuk, Stephen Coombs, piano
And thus we begin something like a five-week stretch of piano concerti: an only okay one, a good one, an amazing one, a classic one I’ll be seeing live, and the anniversary of a premiere. Maybe more. Let’s go. 
For all his pedagogical talents and accolades, I feel this concerto leaves something to be desired. Let’s talk about Arensky’s education and teaching, and then about the piece. It’s good! It’s just… boring. Almost irritatingly so.
He lived from 1861 to 1906 (born a year after and died a few years earlier than Mahler, for reference) and started composing at a very young age, having written a number of songs by eight or nine years of age. He later moved to St. Petersburg where he studied composition with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. He graduated in 1882 and became a professor at the Moscow Conservatory, where such great names as Alexander Scriabin and Sergei Rachmaninoff both studied under him.
He was apparently also well connected, for in 1895, he moved back to St. Petersburg to serve as

director of the Imperial Choir, this from a recommendation by the shady Mily Balakirev. He retired in 1901 and at some point moved to or visited Finland, where he died in 1906 at the age of 44 from tuberculosis.

Looking at this guy on paper makes you think… he must be a talented genius. Just look at where he studied, and who he studied with; look at where he taught and who studied under him. If the success of Scriabin and Rachmaninoff were in any way a product of Arensky’s instruction, you would think this man is really something to look forward to.
Granted, I have only listened to a single piano concerto, but with his marked influence from Tchaikovsky, education with RK and all the rest, one would expect his piano concerto to hold a solid place in the repertoire, if not be a gem of his oeuvre. Even his students went on to write some of the greatest and most well known piano concertos in the repertoire (well, Rachmaninoff, anyway, even though Scriabin’s concerto is wonderful, albeit not as well known as the former’s). Even RK’s piano concerto is pretty great, modeled to a great extent after Liszt’s in E, itself a brilliant work. Everything on paper and in history looks to be in this guy’s favor, but the concerto is largely underwhelming, not because it isn’t good, but, in some ways, because it is. It’s the opposite of unique. Even Rimsky-Korsakov, the boy’s own teacher, said:

“In his youth Arensky did not escape some influence from me; later the influence came from Tchaikovsky. He will quickly be forgotten.”

That wouldn’t inspire much confidence in me if I heard my teacher say that. I hope RK didn’t express it to him.
However he said it, it seems to be true in some ways. I don’t mean to be critical of the man based on only one of his pieces. He did write three operas, a ballet that wasn’t performed until after his death, two symphonies, a violin concerto, a piece for piano and orchestra, and a handful of other orchestral things. Apparently his talents were greatest in chamber music. He wrote a few quartets, a trio, some pieces for solo piano, and some vocal/choral stuff. Blah blah blah.
What I was most hoping to hear was a great piano concerto. And this is not it. Let’s talk about it.
Granted, it was his opus no. 2, published in 1881, when the boy was only twenty-ish years old, so I’m not slamming the composer himself (just the piece [a little bit]), but it is slightly surprising that it isn’t better.
But it’s decent enough to listen to, just nothing memorable. It’s in three movements, but like RK’s concerto, not too long and all played together. It’s Russian-y and kind of fairy tale playful Romantic, but that’s about it. His teacher was kind of right about being forgotten.
I generally write about pieces I like, and so I feel somewhat guilty for being critical here, but let me preface it by saying this. I would be ridiculously proud of myself if I had written this piece. It’s not bad music, but against some of the other concerti we’ll be discussing over the next month, one of which written by a student of Arensky, it just doesn’t stand up so well.
It starts dramatically from the orchestra, who then drop off to allow the piano to enter just as dramatically with a pretty standard cadenza. All of this smacks very much of Liszt’s first. That’s not a bad thing. It’s all quite nice. The piano introduces the main theme, and to me, it is plucked right from Chopin’s op. 27 nocturne (no. 1), which again, is beautiful, but it makes this price derivative right from the get go. The flute and clarinet enter, oboe, and the whole thing gets richer. It’s solidly good, pretty music.
It has its emotional and playful natures. The orchestration is nice, allowing for thinner, smaller scale passages in contrast to the big typical Romantic showiness.
I quite like the clear delineation between the piano as soloist and the orchestra. The roles are clearly defined, be it with question and answer, or just clear-cut your turn/my turn passages. Nothing is muddled.
The first movement runs to about 12 minutes and is pretty straightforward, with lots of trill-filled cadenzas and ornamentation.
The second movement opens in a more somber tone, with a beautiful  passage from piano spanning almost the entire range of the piano. This, too, sounds strangely familiar. Tchaikovsky? It’s somewhat…. Predictable, I feel, I’m that I kind of hear what’s coming next in many passages, and not because I’ve heard it enough times to memorize.
After the piano’s bit, the strings enter with a beautiful, melancholy passage while the piano continues in the background. I would say that much of this movement sounds like Rachmaninoff, but that credit must then go to Arensky; this one came first (it could then just be argued that Rachmaninoff did better things with it….) I swear he quotes from someone else here or someone later quoted from him: I just can’t put my finger on it… This lyrical and dramatic ABA movement is over in less than seven minutes, and we are on to the third, at around the same length.
It is probably my favorite movement, and also the most Russian-feeling. The orchestration and rhythms are exciting and fun, very rich and exotic sounding. While I may be somewhat critical of the piece, it does sound virtuosic. This movement seems to be the most individual, to have the most personality, and is thus the most interesting to me. The piano is quite busy almost throughout, fluttering almost constantly, even if t doesn’t have the spotlight. The theme of this movement almost feels waltzy, or like some kind of dance. It’s captivating for sure. I feel for all that happens in this movement, the end could have been more… Substantial.
It is almost frustrating how solidly musical and generally sound this music is… but then.. to still be such a bland piece of music, in my opinion. It lacks personality, or passion, or newness. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate it. Again, I would be unreasonably proud of myself if I had written this, but it will (likely) never be a piece I long to listen to. It is missing something, not musically, but emotionally. Why do I feel guilty for not liking the piece?

3 thoughts on “Anton Arensky: Piano Concerto in Fm, op. 2

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