The ballet, which premiered in 1900, is full of late-Romantic orientalisms. But it’s also more than that. Arensky actually researched Egyptian music in preparation for writing this score. And although the Egyptian melodies he used are heavily cloaked in rich Western harmonies, the essence is still there.
The ballet tells the story of a young man who becomes infatuated with Cleopatra. An infatuation that almost proves fatal. Once Cleopatra enters, there are lots of opportunities for dancing to entertain the Queen.
Arensky was a great admirer of Tchaikovsky. His dances in this ballet reminded me strongly of a similar sequence in “The Nutcracker.” There are dances of the Jewish Girls, the Egyptian Girls, the Ghazi, and the Snake Charmer. Each has a distinctive character, and each enhanced by the same type of exotic orchestration that Tchaikovsky used in “The Nutcracker.”
The Moscow Symphony Orchestra, directed by Dmitry Yablonsky delivers some fine performances. This is a reissue of a 1996 recording, and it holds up well. The sound isn’t quite as finely detailed as, say, a 2006 recording would be. But it still works for me.
If you only know Arensky through his “Tchaikovsky Variations” or his first Piano Trio, give this a listen. You might be pleasantly surprised.
Anton Arensky: Egyptian Nights, Op. 50
Alexander Avarmenko, violin Solo; Vladimir Kolpashnikov, cello solo
Moscow Symphony Orchestra; Dmitry Hablonsky, conductor