Musicians today enjoy unprecedented access to a wealth of music – both scores and recordings – that are only a few mouse clicks away. I often take advantage of this, embarking on cyber voyages that, every so often, turn up unexpected treasures. I usually take as my starting point a piece that I already know, and explore something else by that composer or one of their contemporaries. This time Anton Arensky’s Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky lead me to his First Symphony in B minor of 1883.
It is perhaps sadly appropriate that Arensky’s posthumous reputation rests so much on a piece that bears another composer’s name; Tchaikovsky’s influence is unmistakable in this symphony. Nevertheless, the first movement, though a little repetitive, holds plenty that’s compelling such as a gloriously indulgent second subject, and a wonderful little march episode in the development that always makes me think of a band of toy soldiers marching on to the stage. The second movement Andante pastorale owes much to Arensky’s teacher Rimsky-Korsakov, though certain turns of phrase and harmony leave me as much in mind of Schumann. This is also the case in the scherzo, whose trio combines the Rimskyesque style of the second movement with a charming use of the off-kilter effect of the 5/4 time signature (ten years before Tchaikovsky did the same thing…)
Shortcomings are easy to find, but listening to the piece for the first time, by this point I was convinced I’d unearthed something special. Then came the finale... In the interests of balance I should say that upon further acquaintance this movement wasn’t quite the depressing sinkhole of musical invention that I had first thought it was. Mostly it’s just extremely repetitive. The design owes a great deal to Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony, based as it is on a folk melody that’s passed around the orchestra clothed in increasingly virtuosic garb. However, Tchaikovsky breaks from the intentionally oppressive repetition of this folk tune (‘The Crane’) with a rather suave second subject. Although this passage doesn’t last long before ‘The Crane’ swoops back in, it greatly extends the palette he has to work with later in the complex (not to say bizarre) development section. Aresnky’s second subject is another folky sounding melody that is given much the same treatment as the first, and consequently the development becomes a series of rather clichéd compositional devices that lead to a recapitulation that is structurally very similar to the exposition. A few more stock devices in the coda steer the movement towards an ending that, though at this point rather welcome, also somehow manages to seem unprepared and anticlimactic.
Given how attached I was starting to become to the symphony the dismal finale was a real disappointment. And its a disappointment that, in my experience, is also far from unique to this piece; plenty of symphonies out there that seem to fall hard at the final hurdle. There are some – Dvořák 7 being a prime example – that offer us so much brilliance that the limitations of the finale do not count against them too severely. What of something like the Arensky, though? I feel that the first three movements work because the limitations are balanced by what is musically satisfying. Making the case for a symphony with a movement noticeably poorer in quality than the rest is hard. That's most particularly the case when it’s the finale that's the weak link, since the movement plays such a pivotal role in shaping our opinion of the work.
There’s something undeniably romantic about the idea that there are pieces out there laying neglected that only need a champion to be given a new beginning in their performance history. I wonder, though, whether a symphonic bad ending all but guarantees a bad ending to the life story of that symphony.