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ClassicsOnline Home » BALAKIREV: Symphony No. 1 / Islamey / Tamara
Indeed this is quite the finest orchestral account of Islamey I have ever heard.
A superb performance and recording by the Russian State Orchestra.
Mili Alexeyevich Balakirev (1837 -1910)
Symphony No.1 in C Major
Islamey (orch. Liapunov)
Balakirev occupies an important if equivocal position in the history of Russian music of the later part of the nineteenth century. He was born in Nizhny-Novgorod in 1837 and had his first piano lessons from his mother, who later arranged some lessons for him with Alexander Dubuque, a pupil of John Field. Through a later teacher, the German Karl Eisrich, he was introduced to the circle of Alexander Ulïbïshev, an enthusiastic amateur, author of books on Mozart and Beethoven and owner of a useful music library. At Ulïbïshev's house he was able to hear chamber music and occasionally orchestral works, the inspiration for his own early compositions. It was through the agency of this patron that Balakirev was able in 1855 to travel to St. Petersburg, where he met Glinka and other well known musicians and made his own debut as a pianist and composer.
Supporting himself with difficulty by giving piano lessons and private performances, Balakirev managed to survive in St. Petersburg, where he met two young army officers, César Cui and Modest Mussorgsky, both keen amateur composers, over whom he began to exercise some influence. He had, at the same time, formed a friendship with Dmitry and Vladimir Stasov, the latter an important figure in the intellectual support of Russian musical nationalism. In 1861 he met Rimsky-Korsakov and the following year Borodin, completing the group of five Russian nationalists described by Vladimir Stasov as the Mighty Handful, the Five who would follow Glinka's example in the creation of a distinctively Russian musical tradition. At the same time Balakirev had increasing involvement with the Free School of Music in St. Petersburg, set up in opposition to the 'German' Conservatory established by Anton Rubinstein, with the encouragement of the Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna, who did her best to remove Balakirev from the conductorship of the Russian Music Society concerts, which were under her patronage. Balakirev's own character, obstinate and tactless, did much to increase the division between the Conservatory and his own followers, castigated by Anton Rubinstein as amateurs, a charge that could never have been levelled at him. Balakirev's later relationship with Nikolai Rubinstein and the Moscow Conservatory, where Tchaikovsky taught, was more satisfactory, and it was Nikolai Rubinstein who introduced the oriental fantasy for piano, Islamey, to the St. Petersburg public in 1869.
Religious conversion led to a brief retirement from musical life and from familiar society between 1871 and 1874, but gradually thereafter Balakirev resumed something of his old activities, particularly, in 1881, the direction of the Free School, which he had surrendered to Rimsky-Korsakov in 1874. In 1883 his friends found for him a position as director of the Imperial Court Chapel, where he was assisted by Rimsky-Korsakov. A breach with the latter came in 1890, as Belyayev, an important patron and publisher of Russian music, gradually seemed to usurp his place as leader of the Russian nationalist composers. A measure of friendship was restored, to be destroyed completely and finally by Rimsky-Korsakov's behaviour at the first performance of Balakirev's First Symphony at a Free School Concert in 1898. Balakirev had retired from the Imperial Chapel in 1895 and thereafter had devoted himself more fully to composition, to his continuing task of editing the music of Glinka and to the encouragement of a new group of young Russian composers, including his always loyal disciple Sergei Liapunov, who later orchestrated Islamey. Freedom from other activity allowed the completion of a symphony he had started many years before and the completion of a second in 1908. In this final period of his life he attracted little attention from the musical public and expressed some bitterness at the neglect of his work. Russian music, nevertheless, owed him a considerable debt. Combative by temperament, he had fought for his own conception of truly Russian music, which found future expression in a synthesis of the technique of the Conservatories and the spirit that he had engendered and nurtured.
Balakirev started his first symphony in 1864, a year after his first appearance as a conductor. According to Rimsky-Korsakov, by 1866 Balakirev had written down a third of the first movement, with sketches for a scherzo and a finale on Russian themes, the songs Sharlatarla from Partarla and We sowed the millet. The sketches for the scherzo were later used in the second symphony. Balakirev resumed work on the first symphony in the 1890s, finishing it in December 1897. An arrangement for piano duet was played by the composer and Liapunov to a few invited guests, including Rimsky-Korsakov, Glazunov and the Stasovs, and was received on that occasion without enthusiasm. It has since won a warmer welcome.
The symphony is scored for three flutes, two oboes, cor anglais, three clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, three timpani, triangle, cymbals and bass drum, harp and strings. The first movement opens with a slow introduction, the source of the rest of the movement, the first subject is derived from the first two bars, while the second subject is derived from a phrase played by flute and violas starting in the fifth bar. There is, in an accompanying figure in the second violins, the suggestion of a scene from Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov. The first subject is announced by the full orchestra at the start of the Allegro vivo, a theme later augmented by the brass, before the entry of the second subject, which is immediately developed. Balakirev's technical competence is apparent in the subtle re-appearance of the first subject, leading to a subsidiary second subject, before the central section where further development continues, with here and in the third section of the movement, considerable use of augmentation, the theme now played in still longer note-values. The A minor Scherzo adds a Russian dimension to Mendelssohn, with an expressively melancholy D minor Trio, the principal theme of which appears again in the final coda to the movement. The whispered end of the Scherzo leads to a D fiat major slow movement. Here the clarinet has the principal theme, accompanied by strings and harp and leading the way to an E major subsidiary theme in a prolonged exploration of the possibilities of sonata-rondo form, unusual in a slow movement. The harp, in a series of scales, prepares the necessary change of key for the C major Finale, which begins without a break. Here cellos and double basses announce a Russian theme, the first subject, followed by a D major second subject from the clarinet, in compound rhythm, a theme that Balakirev had heard sung by a blind beggar. A third, asymmetric theme is introduced by the cellos, adding to the thematic material of a movement that ends in a vigorous Tempo di polacca.
The oriental fantasy Islamey was written in 1869 and revised in 1902. It remains, in its original piano version, the best known of Balakirev's compositions, the only one to bring profit to his publishers, its exoticism matched in Liapunov's orchestral version. The fantasy is based on three themes, the first known as Islamey and heard by the composer on a visit to the Caucasus. The second theme is lively in rhythm, and these two themes lead to the expressive third theme, which the composer had heard sung by the Armenian baritone Konstantin de Lazari at Tchaikovsky's house in the summer of 1869. This theme later emerges in more energetic guise, as the material is developed.
The symphonic poem Tamara is based on a poem by Lermontov. The evil and beautiful Princess Tamara lives in a tower set in wild countryside, overlooking the gorge of the Daryal and the river Terek. Lights from the tower, glowing through the night mists, lure the traveller seeking shelter. Over him the Princess casts a spell that cannot be broken. He is received by a black eunuch, who shows him into the presence of the Princess, reclining on a luxurious couch. The two meet in love, but strange sounds are heard, the sounds, as it were, of young men and girls brought together on their wedding night to the echoes of mourning. At dawn all is silence, but for the rushing of the river below, bearing with it a corpse, to which a soft voice from the tower bids farewell.
Balakirev completed Tamara in 1882, although the subject had fascinated him for some fifteen years, with Islamey seemingly a preparatory sketch for the symphonic poem, which follows closely enough the moods of Lermontov's poem. Here is the gorge and rushing river, the mists, the mysterious tower, and then the pagan seductiveness of Tamara's melody, introduced by flute and oboe in sinuous unison, followed by a second more sensuous melody for clarinet. The wild entertainment of the night ends in the death of the traveller, the sinister farewell, as the river bears away its burden into the distance.
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BALAKIREV: Symphony No. 1 / Islamey / Tamara