The American Ying Quartet -- violinist Ayano Ninomiya along with Janet (violin), Phillip (viola) and David (cello) Ying -- has just released a gorgeous album of chamber music by Russian composer Anton Arensky (1861-1906). It is late-Romantic music at its most vivid, intelligently and expressively interpreted. The disc is also an eloquent argument in favour of programming Arensky's music more often.
(Toronto's Gryphon Trio has programmed Arensky's gorgeous and relatively well-known Piano Trio in D-minor for its Nov. 17 Music Toronto recital.)
The Yings' album doesn't really have a title, but it could have been called The Arensky Variations, because each of the three pieces on the disc contains intricately rendered variations. The most substantial come in the String Quartet No. 2, in A minor. The second of its three movements contains a theme, seven contrasting variations and a coda. The Finale movement includes expert displays of both canon and fugue.
The first and second Quartets date from 1888 and 1894, respectively, written while the gold-medal composition graduate of the St. Petersburg Conservatory was teaching at the Moscow Conservatory (where his students included Sergei Rachmaninov).
The Piano Quintet, recorded with the help of Arensky-loving pianist Adam Neiman, dates from 1899. At this point, Arensky had moved back to St. Petersburg, where he had been appointed music director of the Imperial Choir in 1895.
All of the music here displays a deep mastery of classical musical structure and counterpoint as well as a facility with melody -- in particular being able to fold in the soulds of Russian folk music. There is nothing adventurous in the architecture, but the careful proportions of each movement feel so right, that I don't feel like anything's missing.
Listening to this particular music at this time of year is a music-lover's equivalent of lighting up the fireplace and settling down in a comfortable chaise for a moment of escape from the world's many noises and demands.
I haven't always been a fan of the Yings' interpretations, which I've sometimes thought a bit shallow. Perhaps the addition of Ayano Ninomiya last season made a difference. They are wonderful here, finding poise, balance and extroversion where necessary. Neiman is fleet and elegant, playing as one with the quartet.
For more information on the disc, click here.
Here are the Yings performing the opening, Moderato, movement of Arensky's A-minor String Quartet No. 2, Op. 35 at Skidmore College last month: