String Quartet No.2 in a minor, Op.35/35a
Anton Arensky (1861-1906) was born in Novgorod but his family moved to St. Petersburg while he was still relatively young. His first piano lessons were from his mother. He entered the Petersburg Conservatory in 1879 and three years later graduated with high honors. Among his principal teachers was Rimsky-Korsakov. He subsequently taught at the Moscow Conservatory where he befriended and was influenced by Tchaikovsky and Sergei Taneyev.
String Quartet No.2 was composed in 1895 and dedicated and bears the inscription "To the memory of Tchaikovsky." It was originally composed for the unusual combination of Violin, Viola and 2 Cellos and carries the opus number of 35. As there are virtually no other string quartets for this combination, Arensky's publisher, with an eye toward sales, begged him to write a version for standard string quartet. This he did, taking great care to preserve the marvelous sonority he had achieved with the version for 2 cellos. The version for standard string quartet was given the opus number of 35a.
It is clear that Arensky definitely was concerned with creating a darker tone by the use of two cellos and it is certainly not unreasonable to assume that the use of the double bass instead of the cello would have also appealed to him. Certainly, Dr. Anthony Scelba’s faithful arrangement of the second cello part accomplishes the goal of adding great depth without any unnecessary heaviness. So it is with pleasure that we make available this fine arrangement which, in fact, even creates an added dimension without in anyway altering or marring Arensky’s intentions.
The opening movement of the Quartet, Moderato, sounds like it came from the Russian Orthodox funeral service. it is at once quite striking and reminiscent of a similar movement in Tchaikovsky’s third string quartet. A dramatic second theme, while not exactly happy, relieves the earlier somber mood which ultimately returns to close this long but very finely-wrought movement. The second movement bears the title "Based on a theme by Tchaikovsky. The theme, as one might suspect of a memorial work, is somber bearing some resemblance to the hymn of the Volga boatmen. It is a huge movement and clearly the center of gravity for the quartet. The seven variations are quite elaborate with each instrument given the lead while the composer explores all of the tonal and textural possibilities of which four string instruments are capable. The mood lightens and at times wanders considerably from the original theme--here a scherzo, there a lyrical song, and at last a somber plaint. (our sound-bite presents the theme and 2 of the seven variations) A truly outstanding accomplishment. The finale, Andante sostenuto-Allegro moderato, begins in the same somber mood where previous movement left off. But this dirge-like heaviness is soon relieved by a robust church anthem tune which brings the quartet to rousing finish.
Here is a first rate very Russian-sounding work from the late Romantic era. Fun to play and great to listen to. Not to be missed by quartet groups. Please note, the score, is of the original version (Violin, Viola & 2 Cellos), however, it is perfectly serviceable as a score for the versions.