This disc juxtaposes two significant Russian works for violin and orchestra, each written by a composer with a close relationship to Tchaikovsky, and each dedicated to the great violinist and pedagogue Leopold Auer. These two concertos are both formidable display pieces, designed to show off Auer’s transcendental technique. Ilya Gringolts, acclaimed as one of the great young violin virtuosos of today and lauded for his debut recording on Hyperion, dazzles in this repertoire, ably supported by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Ilan Volkov.
Arensky’s Violin Concerto is an original single-movement work, cast in contrasting sections. It is a model of the flowering of Russian romantic nationalism—Tchaikovsky’s influence on his friend is pleasingly evident—as is Arensky’s gift for melody and delightful contrasts of musical character. Taneyev’s much larger Suite de concert is a synthesis of different styles: it looks back to the Baroque suite with its different dance movements, the Märchen movement suggesting the high Romanticism of Schumann and the Theme and Variations a homage to Tchaikovsky. Particularly striking is the finale: an energetic and vivacious Tarantella, almost relentless in its onrushing rhythm. As the finale proceeds the dance becomes more frenetic, driving to a viscerally exciting conclusion that must have brought the house down in live performances.
This disc juxtaposes two significant Russian works for violin and orchestra, each written by a composer with a close relationship to Tchaikovsky, and each dedicated—as Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto had been—to the great violinist and pedagogue Leopold Auer (1845–1930). Though Hungarian by birth, and a pupil of Joseph Joachim, Auer settled in St Petersburg and taught at the Conservatoire there from 1868 to 1917. Thus for well-nigh half a century, until he emigrated to the USA following the Revolution, Auer was one of the principal virtuosi of his instrument in Imperial Russia, one to whom many composers turned to seek technical advice and performing advocacy for their works.
The earlier of the two works on the present disc is the sole violin concerto of Anton Stepanovich Arensky (1861–1906). Arensky was born in Novgorod and, though originally a pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov in St Petersburg, at the age of twenty-one in 1882 he became a Professor at the Moscow Conservatory, where he was closely associated with Tchaikovsky, both in friendship and stylistic emulation: the kinship of Arensky’s musical language to that of the older composer has often been remarked. Among the pupils in his harmony class were Rachmaninov and Scriabin, and like Rachmaninov Arensky composed a work in memory of Tchaikovsky—his Second String Quartet, in which he unusually substituted a second cello for the second violin, probably in order to darken the tone-colour for his elegiac purpose. In the 1890s he returned to St Petersburg as the director of the Imperial Choir, a post for which he had been recommended by Balakirev, but retired from this position in 1901. Arensky died comparatively young, of tuberculosis, in a sanatorium at Perkijarvi, Finland, leaving an output of moderate size of which the best-remembered pieces are undoubtedly the aforementioned quartet and the Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky which he extracted from it and scored for string orchestra.
Nevertheless, Arensky was a natural and charming melodist, and he wrote several other delightful compositions, of which his Violin Concerto in A minor Op 54 is one of the most notable.
The deft and elegant single-movement design of Arensky’s concerto, patently a work of the mature stage of Russian romantic nationalism, contrasts with the more formal, even neoclassical ambitions of the much larger Suite de concert by one of Arensky’s closest associates at the Moscow Conservatory—Tchaikovsky’s protégé, champion and friend Sergei Ivanovich Taneyev. Five years Arensky’s senior, Taneyev was born in 1856 at Vladimir-na-Klyaz’me; his gifts were recognized while he was still a child and he entered the Moscow Conservatory before he was ten, studying composition with Tchaikovsky and piano with Nikolai Rubinstein. In 1875 he graduated from the Conservatoire, the first student to win the gold medal in both performance and composition. Taneyev gave the Moscow premiere of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto after Rubinstein rejected it, and introduced all of Tchaikovsky’s subsequent works for piano and orchestra. Over the years he took over Tchaikovsky’s and Rubinstein’s classes at the Conservatory and in 1885 was appointed its Director. After four years he resigned the post because of the effects of overwork and in order to concentrate on composition; but he continued to teach counterpoint, his speciality, until 1905. Taneyev’s knowledge of Renaissance counterpoint, including Ockeghem and Lassus, was unequalled in Russia, and he passed it on to his many pupils, who included Glière, Lyapunov, Medtner, Rachmaninov and Scriabin. In the wake of the failed Revolution of 1905, he resigned from the Conservatory in protest at the Director’s punishment of students who had been involved in popular agitation. In his last ten years he resumed his career as a concert pianist, published an important and influential textbook on Invertible Counterpoint and began another on canon.
Taneyev was slow to develop as a composer and, while universally respected and admired, remained a solitary figure artistically. He had a strong interest in Russian folk music, but especially as a basis for polyphonic treatment, feeling that Russian music had not yet experienced the polyphonic phase which the rest of Europe had gone through in the sixteenth century. He believed in well-balanced structures and thorough, logical development, tendencies which make him in a sense the most ‘Germanic’ of Russian composers. Not for nothing was he called ‘the Russian Brahms’; yet like his mentor Tchaikovsky he disliked Brahms’s music and proclaimed that Mozart was his ideal.
Calum MacDonald © 2009