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ClassicsOnline Home » TCHAIKOVSKY / ARENSKY: Piano Trios
By Donald R Vroon
American Record Guide
Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) Piano Trio Op. 50
Arensky (1861-1906) Piano Trio Op. 32
Tchaikovsky's life was punctuated by periods of severe
depression, often originated by any adverse comment of friends or mentors following the
first performance of his music. Typical of this was his love-hate relationship with
Nicolai Rubinstein - one of his most exacting critics, yet his most loyal supporter -
which prompted Tchaikovsky to describe him as a "heartless, dried-up pianist".
Yet just over a year later he wrote to a friend describing a dream in which he imagined
Rubinstein had died "and now I cannot think of him without compassion and a feeling
of deep love". Indeed Rubinstein's subsequent death in 1881 so devastated the
composer that he was inactive for many months, though as grief ebbed it brought about a
new and intense period of activity.
A few months later in a letter to his patroness, Nadezhda von
Meck, he commented, "you once advised me to write a trio for piano, violin and cello,
and I replied that I openly declared my antipathy to this combination of instruments. Now
suddenly I am conceiving the idea of testing myself in this sort of music."
In less than a month he had finished sketches of a Piano Trio in A minor dedicated to Rubinstein with
the words, "to the memory of a great artist". Still apprehensive of his ability
to write for this combination - it was to be his only work in this medium - he asked a
group of friends to play it for him. The result was a number of modifications before the
score was made available for publication in 1882. Many of the amendments simplified the
demands made on the performers, though Tchaikovsky still could not avoid writing in
orchestral terms, the piano part being almost the equivalent of a concerto.
It is a work overflowing with melodic invention, the first
movement being a succession of lyrical ideas built around a passionate first theme heard
on the cello. The music becomes both sad and tender in a long dialogue between piano and
cello, an atmosphere that equally pervades the first theme when it once again appears to
end the movement with a feeling of deep grief.
Tchaikovsky once described the second movement as being
inspired by the memory of the events on a particularly happy day spent with Rubinstein in
Moscow. It is in the form of a theme - first stated on the piano - followed by eleven
variations. Such happiness comes to the fore in the third, a bubbling scherzo; the
charming tenth in the form of a mazurka, while the fifth is a picture of a musical box and
the sixth a reflection on his opera Eugene Onegin.
The finale restates the second movement theme with considerable
brio, but the mood soon changes to a cry of anguished loss leading to a funeral march
which ends the work in sadness and resignation.
Death is the link between the two works on this disc, for the
Arensky Trio was inspired by the loss of his friend, the virtuoso cellist, Karl Davidoff.
Tchaikovsky, 21 years his senior, had found an instant affinity
with Arensky, a child prodigy of affluent parents, who had been awarded every possible
honour at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, graduating as a Rimsky-Korsakov composition
pupil in 1882 at the age of 21. Soon after he moved to Moscow to take up the post of
professor at the conservatory, and there he met and was befriended by Tchaikovsky who
recognized him as 'a man of remarkable talent".
In many ways they were kindred spirits,
for Arensky also suffered bouts of sheer depression, a dissipative life leading to
his early death at 44. He greatly valued Tchaikovsky's encouragement which even extended
to his older colleague forsaking performances of his own music so that Arensky's works
could be included.
It therefore came as no surprise when he
also chose the Piano Trio format as the commemorative work for their mutual friend,
Davidoff, but whereas the piano dominates the Tchaikovsky, he - quite naturally - gives
most of the major themes to the cello.
Arensky was content to work within the confines of the medium,
with a compact and beautifully crafted work, the last three of the four movement work
being quite short and almost of uniform length. The urgency of the opening rhapsodic theme
on the cello, obviously pictures the outgoing Davidoff, while the elegant second movement
waltz recalls - in a direct parallel with the Tchaikovsky trio - happy memories of
Arensky's association with the cellist. The third finally expresses grief and desolation
of death, the simple Elegia being dominated by muted cello and violin. This melodic idea
spills over into the finale, but while the whole movement is punctuated with moments of
sadness, the music eventually gives way to a brilliance leading to an exciting conclusion.
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TCHAIKOVSKY / ARENSKY: Piano Trios