Anton Arensky continues to defy the damning epitaph of his erstwhile teacher Rimsky-Korsakov who stated that "he will soon be forgotten", with rival recordings of his orchestral and chamber works continuing to appear in the catalogues. This useful compendium, originally released as part of Svetlanov's 'Anthology of Russian Symphonic Music', collects together most of Arensky's orchestral oeuvre (along with some shorter and more rarely heard pieces); the piano and violin concertos are omitted but can be easily and cheaply obtained elsewhere to supplement the works collected in this set.
The abundance of suites and variation form movements that make up the bulk of the music here might suggest that he was uncomfortable in handling large scale musical structures - the fine chamber music (though it too makes ample use of theme-and-variation in individual movements) might give the lie to that supposition but the two symphonies that open this programme, unfortunately, reinforce the impression. Unsurprisingly, Arensky strikes me as at his strongest in the internal movements of both works; indeed, the delicate use of instrumental colouring during the lyrically inspired 'Romanza' and 'Intermezzo' of the second symphony make these two movements among the highlights of the set for me. Alas, the only merit I can find in the cyclical outer movements that frame these gems is their succinctness (the whole symphony clocks in at just 22 minutes). The earlier symphony is more expansive, though still rather moderate in length for the late nineteenth century, and more overtly nationalistic; it contains a fair amount that is appealing in passing but I have to say it pales beside the symphonies of even Arensky's second-tier contemporaries and, having known the work for over twenty years, it rarely draws me back. The relatively well-known 'Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky' for string orchestra concludes the first disc; an arrangement of a movement from one of his string quartets, this is a fine tribute to Arensky's idol and sometime mentor, beautifully imagined and scored and no less beautifully played here.
The first of Arensky's three numbered suites for orchestra begins the second disc and once again we are presented with a set of variations, this time on a Russian folksong; these form a strong opening movement, which better reconciles nationalist elements with Arensky's own more cosmopolitan leanings than had the early symphony, I think. It ushers in four often lively, colourfully scored and tuneful genre pieces - dance, scherzo, an ingratiatingly memorable 'basso ostinato' and a march. The second suite, subtitled 'Silhouettes' and with movement titles such as 'The Dancer' and 'The Thinker', occupies essentially the same sound world, the comically stentorian opening fugue the delightful exception among these colourful character studies. Arensky's ballet 'Egyptian Nights' provides the music for the suite that concludes this disc - it's tuneful stuff, apparently utilising original Middle Eastern melodies but the exoticism, to my ears (schooled as they were on the musical Orientalism of Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov and Florent Schmitt), seems rather tepid to say the least. It makes for pleasant listening nonetheless, even if it's not the composer at his best; if you enjoy what you hear, you may be interested in the sole recording of the complete ballet, available from Marco Polo - Arensky: Egyptian Nights.
The third suite (disc three) returns to variation form again, though here the whole work is a massive set of variations on an original theme; I initially thought the theme itself, though pretty enough, rather lacking in potential for what amounts to a thirty minute long movement in total but Arensky's craftsmanship is at its best here. The 'Marche funèbre' is especially deeply-felt and the haunting but consolatory 'Nocturne', into which it segues, an inspired piece of poetic juxtaposition. The fantasia, 'Marguerite Gautier', which follows, is effectively a tone poem or character portrait, its subject the heroine of `La Dame aux camélias' (who became Violetta in Verdi's operatic setting, 'La Traviata') and very lovely it is too; exquisitely orchestrated, parts of it reminded me of Glazunov, his 'Raymonda' in particular. Rather less substantial, if scarcely less attractive, are the remaining fill-up pieces - the overtures/preludes to Arensky's three operas, a brief intermezzo for strings and a commemorative march.
The 'Fantasia on themes of Ryabinin' for piano and orchestra, referenced in the feeble liner notes is not included in this set; it is, however, available from Naxos, coupled with the piano concerto - Arensky: Piano Concerto In F minor.
That is the only can cavil I can find about this attractive collection; it's true that I remain singularly unimpressed with the symphonies but I know that many other listeners will warm to them more than I have been able to (and indeed have done, judging by other reviews I've read). Sound quality is very good - recordings date from between 1983 and 1990 - and admirably clear and natural. As you might guess, Svetlanov conducts this music for all it's worth but nothing sounds hard pressed or driven beyond its expressive limits in search of effect.
Undoubtedly, Arensky isn't one of the "great" composers but his music is often very rewarding and - even more often - extremely charming. With the amount of music packed into this three-disc collection, this set is a must for anyone interested in this composer and possibly also for anyone interested in Russian music generally.