Arensky Symphony No. 1 in B minor, op. 4

performed by the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra under Stanislav Vavrinek

or here by the people sourced for this video (USSR Radio & TV something?)

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

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, of Arensky

As stated on Tuesday, I was less than unimpressed by the Arensky piano concerto. Granted, it was a very early work from a man who became known more for his chamber works than large pieces, but it wasn’t from lack of boldness. James Reel says for AllMusic:

Arensky certainly didn’t hesitate to try his hand at large forms; among his first four published works are a piano concerto and this first of his two symphonies. Arensky wrote the work at age 22, during his first year as professor at the Moscow Conservatory.

So yeah, ambitious. (That above link also has a nice summary of the piece written by Reel). It’s not unmemorable or anything. I feel about it maybe the same way I do about the piano concerto: there’s nothing wrong with it, and it isn’t missing anything, it’s just that it might not have anything special. That being said, I’m more inclined to appreciate and enjoy the first symphony than the piano concerto, I think.

So the first symphony is a young piece, and influence from both Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov are apparent. I feel like much of this symphony is, for lack of a better word, militaristic. Perhaps it’s the use of brass, or the rhythmic drive, something, that makes me think of RK’s time in the navy. MusicWeb tells us that the piece was premiered in Moscow on 24 November 1883 conducted by the then 22-year-old composer, who’d just graduated. For some frame of reference, both Bruckner’s seventh and Brahms’s third also made their first appearances in 1883.

The first movement begins almost mid-drama, with dark, growly brass. It feels like things are already happening, like there’s already a story I’m unaware of, but the strings lead us into a lively, almost march-like lively first theme, with some remnant growls leftover from the brass, but then suddenly there’s a gorgeous, pared down kind of naked lyrical theme in what sound like entirely different strings. It blossoms into greater beauty, with more strings and dialogue before the menacing opening gesture in low strings and brass break up the party. While the contrast is nice, that single figure in the first subject gets quite repetitive to me after a while. The development begins with the same growl, but when our lyrical theme is accompanied by bass drum and tambourine, it takes on an entirely different feel. I’ll give it to him, Arensky does do creative, very Russian-sounding things with his two subjects, but the development almost begins to feel like new material.

The second movement is an andante, slow and lyrical, and you’d be forgiven if you believed this was Rimsky-Korsakov or Tchaikovsky. The movement is in ternary form, opening with this spacious, comforting melody, beautiful violas, a clarinet. But as if from the depths of some sea somewhere, there swells up a similar but dark, brooding melody in low strings, with brass accompaniment that changes the entire mood. It sounds ‘oceanic’, nautical, to me. The word ‘stormy’ comes to mind. The movement is in ternary form, and these two related but different themes interact beautifully to create tension and release. It’s not a completely straight forward ABA’ movement, though, because the stormy bit only shows up here and there, as if to push things along.

The third movement is the scherzo, apparently (as I read here) in 5/4 time, even more inventive than Borodin’s 1/1. Everything from here on out feels solidly exotic and Russian. The second movement might feel familiar  after listening to Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky, but its in these latter two movements where things get really Russian. Reel describes it as “a gruff, strongly rhythmic Russian symphonic dance,” although I might use the cliché ‘stormy’ instead. The central section is quite interesting, though, with strings presenting an almost Oriental-sounding theme, while woodwinds add an interesting, dancy element to the melody. The ‘gruff’ returns briefly to round out the movement, and the finale, allegro giocoso, is interesting. I’m sorry for all the times I already have and still will use the term ‘folksy’ or something similar to describe traditional Russian song or themes, but this one does too, although it borders almost more on nursery rhyme in its playful simplicity (or something). It opens sufficiently Russian-sounding, commanding and powerful, but instantly descends into this playful, celebratory, melody with strings, oboe and triangle. This is like… I’d believe you if you told me it was Tchaikovsky even though I know it’s not. This is easily the most successful movement of the piece, to me. The theme, maybe the third of the piece, first introduced by clarinet is what feels like some song children would chant. It feels rustic and unpretentious, but also very Russian and just… exciting, brings a smile to the face. It’s a wonderful way to end this symphony.

While it certainly isn’t my favorite, it’s clear the young man had talent. One of the above articles I linked (or another I read) made mention of the work’s structural defects or something, and I’m not sure I notice them as much (or care). The most memorable movement is the finale, and while the rest of it isn’t unmemorable, it doesn’t grab me by the arm and take me on a journey I’m never to forget. It’s nice, and it’s Russian, but it isn’t my favorite. It’s still early in the young man’s career, though, and we can be glad he had the career he did. Maybe at some point we’ll get around to his more mature and/or chamber works, but for now he holds an important place as an influential student of Rimsky-Korsakov and professor at the Moscow Conservatory who taught a number of greatly successful composers. See you next week.


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