Anton Arensky, String Quartet No. 2

The YouTube autoplay algorithm took me to a striking place last night. I don’t recall listening to much of Anton Arensky’s music before, if any at all, but while I was busy with other tasks autoplay alighted on his string quartet no. 2. The repeating opening chords at first made me think I was listening to a piece of modern minimalism like Philip Glass, then I glanced at my laptop to see it was composed in 1894.

The quartet is written in memory of the recently deceased Tchaikovsky, and unusually, it features two cellos instead of two violins, shifting the ensemble’s centre of gravity down into the lower, richer registers (an interesting parallel, perhaps, to the four Wagner tubas inserted into Bruckner’s 7th symphony a decade earlier). 

That’s not the only thing that struck me. A while ago I wrote about how much I love hymn tunes used in instrumental music – well here is a prime example, as the first movement is based on an Orthodox Psalm melody, and includes some chorale-like textures amongst its more idiomatic string quartet writing. The second movement is an extensive theme and variations on Tchaikovsky’s own ‘Legend’ from his Children’s Songs Op. 54, and the short finale sets a sombre funeral mass theme that unexpectedly breaks into a triumphant folksong in a quasi-fugal style – as if to remind us that mourning the dead composer should also mean celebrating his life.

Autoplay often serves up forgettable works, but this piece immediately grabbed me. There is such a wonderful sincerity and clarity to Arensky’s melodic scheme – by borrowing widely for his themes, he seems to suggest the whole world is mourning Tchaikovsky. It’s also a superbly written piece, but one which never lets the need to be Serious Chamber Music get in the way of its songful soul. This is a remarkable work, and a fitting tribute to a wonderful melodist – and I look forward to exploring more of Arensky’s music.

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