Arensky Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, op. 32

performed by Yefim Bronfman, Cho-Liang Lin, and Gary Hoffman, or below by the Beaux Arts Trio

This is another name we haven’t seen in almost exactly a year. Arenksy’s first symphony was in last year’s Russian Symphony Series, but we’d visited him even before that, back with his first piano concerto, op. 2, which I was less impressed with.

But it’s generally held that his real talent lies in his chamber music, so we’re giving him another chance today with one of his arguably more famous works, the first piano trio. (How interesting would it have been to hear a Scriabin piano trio?!) That being said, do give this piece a listen, and get through the first movement to the subsequent three. You’ll see why. Stay with me.

The piece is for violin, cello and piano and was completed in 1894. It’s in four movements:

  1. Allegro moderato (D minor )
  2. Scherzo- Allegro molto (D major)
  3. Elegia- Adagio (G minor )
  4. Finale- Allegro non troppo (D minor)

It’s a pretty standard layout for a four-movement work: sonata form movement at the beginning, and rondo as the finale, centering around the same key, with central scherzo and slow movement, in other keys.

To begin the first movement, the violin enters, followed by cello, with piano in the background. While it has some more intense moments of tension or climax, overall, it’s pastoral, but not in the sense of verdant greens and blue sky. It’s a leaves-changing kind of pastoral, even a little stormy, oranges and yellows and reds, but rich and generally lyrical, even if there are some crunchy moments. The first movement is by far the longest of the work, and there’s a pretty happy helping of melancholy, but it’s relatively ebullient for a work in a minor key, and my impression is that the composer is doing more here with only three instruments than he did with much larger forces in the entire piano concerto, but I’d still go out on a limb and say it’s perhaps the weakest of the four movements, to me, or least memorable. At least relative to what comes next, this movement hasn’t really found its stride.

While the strings take a lot of the attention in the first movement, I think it’s readily apparent that the composer was a pianist, as the instrument forms the backbone of the entire piece, never getting in the way, but providing a solid foundation for what happens around it. The musical form is a followable one, and shows a clear sonata form structure.

The second movement scherzo, in contrast, is much lighter. Obviously the move to the parallel major helps, but it takes flight and soars lightly with trills from piano and sweet, chirp-like expressions from violin. It’s no crunchy, churning scherzo, but a light, even waltz-like thing, and it’s more genuinely waltz-like in the middle section, with piano leading, and cello following, a trio that brings a smile to the face. It’s magically simple and lyrical, an interesting way to contrast the fluttering, light chirpiness of the scherzo proper, another movement full of charms.

The third movement again, in contrast with what came before, is tenderly elegiac, in keeping with its subtitle. The cello and violin rest their head on the piano’s shoulder, maybe with a few wet eyes, a trembling chin, but no outright sobs. The piano responds later as the piece modulates to a brighter key, as if to comfort its stringed companions, but they eventually win the upper hand. It’s mournful in the exact sense of an elegy, a memorial to a loved one, sharing thoughts of happy times and memories, and despite how happy those thoughts are, they only heighten the sense of loss, but it’s no time to wail. This is the third movement, a well-calculated, precisely beautiful tenderness and lyricism, really exquisite writing for all parties involved. A moment in the very end where violin and cello play in unison is understatedly heartbreaking.

The finale again breaks the mood built from the preceding movement with a punctuated opening and lots of minor-key fireworks.

I have to say… I’m a sucker for cyclical form, or for restatement of themes to bring things back together, and we find this in the finale, not just in the return to D minor, but in recalling content from previous movements, as if by some slight of hand those full-movement expressions were just preparations for this rondo. It’s not repetitive or boring, but brings unity and completeness to the work. It would be just fine without it, since the finale is a powerful, dramatic movement on its own, with lots of punch, but Arensky focuses that punch in areas that will give the entire work more meaning. I love that crap. It shows that the preceding content was not only good enough to last for a movement of the work, but to revisit, that it’s part of the backbone of the entire work, and even if there isn’t a ‘coming full circle’ effect, it almost literally ties everything back together, like running an end of rope through itself and pulling tightly to make everything fit together.

I’ll say strongly that the first movement is by far my least favorite of the work, and that while it isn’t bad in any sense, what comes after it is far more inspired and memorable than that opening. It’s full of texture and detail that may obscure some things, and it sounds youthful and ambitious, but the composer was already in his early 30s (and would die just over a decade later). What comes in the subsequent three movements is truly magical, as if Arensky was able to toss aside stuff like sounding Russian, like German tradition, like anything else, and focused on wringing the greatest amount of charm and expression out of the three instruments before him, and he did so.

I’m glad to be finally able to give such praise to the man, because he did serve as such a historical figure, one of the many students of Rimsky-Korsakov, but almost more memorably as teacher to Scriabin and Rachmaninoff, among others. This is clearly where his talents reside, although it isn’t necessarily fair to compare his op. 32 with the opp. 2 or 4. Obviously he matured and refined his talents, and it resulted in a work of passionate, Romantic, rich writing in an intimate, yet powerful setting.

Coincidentally, I have met in person two of the three performers in the featured recording. The only one I haven’t yet had the opportunity to meet or hear perform life is Yefim Bronfman, even though he was here within the past few years. The three play (obviously) wonderfully in this recording, and it’s a piece worth getting to know.

But there’s yet more to enjoy from our deliciously Russian October series, so stay tuned.

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