"He will quickly be forgotten." That was Rimsky-Korsakov's unkind but not inaccurate prediction made shortly after his pupil Anton Arensky's death from tuberculosis at the age of 35. His prediction was unkind in the sense that Arensky's stylish and lyrical works rank with those of Liadov, Kalinnikov, and Ippolitov-Ivanov for melodic charm and orchestral color. But his prediction was accurate to the extent that there have been few performances or recordings of Arensky's music in the century since his death in 1906. Indeed, aside from this undated recording with Evgeny Svetlanov leading the Academic Symphony Orchestra, there has apparently been only one other recording of Arensky's symphonies in the past half century -- Valery Polyansky's on Chandos -- and none before that at all.
For die-hard fans of Russian music, this state of affairs is a shame because as Svetlanov's performances demonstrate, Arensky's symphonies deserve to be heard. Both are youthful works with robust rhythms, brilliant orchestrations, and exuberant melodies, and both are given exemplary performances by Svetlanov and his Moscow musicians. Though neither symphony is likely to replace Borodin, Tchaikovsky, or Glazunov's at the apex of Silver Age Russian symphonism, both are still quite charming. Try just the Second Symphony's Romanza. If its graceful harmonies and sentimental solo cello don't work for you, Arensky's symphonies might not be for you.
But that doesn't mean the final work on the program, the string orchestral version of the Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky from Arensky's Second String Quartet, won't thrill you. With its combination of lyrical melancholy and skillful construction, the variations may be Arensky's most immediately appealing work and Svetlanov and the strings of Academic Symphony give the work a performance of such heartrending beauty that it may convince even the most steadfast of Arensky's detractors. The undated Soviet stereo sound is surprisingly clear and present, but no more so than previously released editions