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ClassicsOnline Home » BALAKIREV, M.: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 / Grande Fantaisie on Russian Folksongs (Seifetdinova, Russian Philharmonic, Yablonsky)
Leader of the ‘Mighty Handful’ of Russian composers, Mily Alexeyevich Balakirev was praised by Rimsky-Korsakov as “an excellent pianist … endowed by nature with a sense of correct harmony and part-writing”, qualities abundantly evident in his two piano concertos, the second of which was completed by Sergey Lyapunov. Brimming with Romantic bravura, rich orchestrations and solo writing that, while distinctive, can often stand comparison with Tchaikovsky, these are highly appealing works. With his Grande Fantasie on Russian Folksongs, Balakirev made an important contribution to Russian nationalist music.
By Jerry Dubins
By Colin Clarke
By Steven J Haller
American Record Guide
Mily Alexeyevich Balakirev (1837–1910)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in F sharp minor, Op. 1
Piano Concerto No. 2 in E flat major
Grande Fantaisie on Russian Folksongs, Op. 4
It is the fate of some composers that whilst their music may fall into neglect their historical significance remains intact and their influence continues to be widely acknowledged. Such was the case with Mily Alexeyevich Balakirev whose impact on the course of late nineteenth-century Russian music, despite combining a relatively modest catalogue of works with a difficult personality, cannot be underestimated. As composer, pianist, conductor, teacher and mentor Balakirev was a seminal figure in Russia and although only a few years older than Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky, seven years senior to Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin’s junior by four years, Balakirev was like an elder-statesman to many of his near contemporaries. Today his celebrated piano fantasy Islamey and symphonic poem Tamara constitute the sum of his known output, while his unjustifiably neglected Symphony No. 1 (Naxos 8.550792) deserves greater recognition.
Born in Nizhny-Novgorod, Balakirev was the son of a minor government official. His musical talent was nurtured initially by his mother, from whom he received his first piano lessons, and who later took him to Moscow, aged ten, to study with Alexander Dubuque, a pupil of John Field. Through another teacher Balakirev met the amateur musician, patron and landowner Alexander Ulïbïshev at whose home he was able to study scores, listen to chamber music and occasionally hear orchestral works performed by local amateur and professional players. His musical pursuits were interrupted in 1853 by the study of mathematics at Kazan University but after Balakirev failed to matriculate, his patron Ulïbïshev introduced him to St Petersburg’s musical circle, which included Glinka. In 1856 Balakirev made his début at a University concert performing the solo part in his own Piano Concerto No. 1 with notable success. Now determined on a musical career Balakirev was, at 21, equally known as a composer and pianist. It became clear, however, after a performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto in E flat in the presence of the Tsar in St Petersburg that he had little interest in solo performance, declaring to a friend that ‘it is especially repulsive to me to appear before our public audiences…’.
Balakirev’s subsequent career brought him into contact with Cui, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin, a group of composers who were eventually labelled the Mighty Handful and who, much advised by Balakirev, were instrumental in creating a distinctively Russian sound. From 1862 when he co-founded the Free School of Music Balakirev exercised much influence through teaching and conducting works at the Russian Music Society concerts, but heart problems prompted his withdrawal from music, and from 1872 he worked briefly for the Warsaw Railway, his interests later turning towards religion. His appointment as Director of Music to the Imperial Chapel in 1883 signalled his return to musical life and on relinquishing this position in 1895, supported by a pension, he devoted his energies to composition. Following this late return, however, his music attracted little attention and with the onset of neglect Balakirev died an embittered man. Despite his ‘disobliging nature’ (as Cui described his character) and combative temperament, Balakirev’s individualism and commitment to his contemporaries influenced a whole generation of composers and Russian music owes him a considerable debt.
Balakirev was also committed to collecting indigenous folk melodies as one of his earliest compositions illustrates. The Grande Fantaisie on Russian Folksongs, Op. 4, for piano and orchestra dates from 24 December 1852 when Balakirev wrote at the end of the score ‘Finis del prima parte’. If he had intended to extend the work then it was not resumed and it remains, like the Piano Concerto in F sharp minor, a stand-alone work belonging to a teenager whose attention was subsequently caught by other interests. The Fantaisie is, nonetheless, an extraordinary accomplishment for a schoolboy who had largely taught himself the rudiments of composition and had only his ear and recollection of scores and previously heard works to guide him. Remarkable too is the self-confidence to compose a work for piano and orchestra where there were so few Russian precedents. He would have been able to draw on his knowledge of piano concertos by Hummel and Chopin, the symphonies of Beethoven and music by Mozart, Mendelssohn and Schumann. Apart from Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar, which made a deep impression on him, Balakirev had few Russian composers to turn to, since existing piano concertos were either derivative (Villoing) or as yet unpublished (Anton Rubenstein).
Dedicated to his teacher Karl Eisrich the Fantaisie draws on two folk-songs, Akh, ne solnyshko zatmilos (The sun is not eclipsed) and Sredi doliny rovnye (Down in the vale), which, rather than being developed melodically or harmonically, are given a delicate orchestral background of chamber proportions. In the work’s five clearly defined sections Balakirev subordinates the orchestra in favour of a demonstrative piano part that relies on glittering arpeggio figuration to carry the main material. This fledgling work indicates his early preoccupation with folk-melody which was to be the inspiration behind the two overtures on Russian themes and his two published collections of folk-tunes.
Some three years after ceasing work on the Fantaisie, Balakirev began his Piano Concerto in F sharp minor. Composed during 1855–56 and although designated Opus 1, it possibly incorporates material predating the earlier work. The concerto’s style and reference to classical sonata-form structure suggests a thorough assimilation of scores in Ulïbïshev’s personal library and concerts that featured works by Mozart, Field and especially Chopin, of which the latter’s E minor Concerto was a favourite of Balakirev all his life. The work made a favourable impression after its St Petersburg première when the composer and critic Alexander Serov was moved to write that ‘Balakirev’s composition was splendidly performed by the composer…and the audience’s appreciation was ardently expressed by tremendous applause’. Serov, furthermore pointed to the work’s poetic conception, attractive scoring and graceful melodies, concluding with, ‘Balakirev’s talent is a godsend to our country’s music’.
A portentous drum-roll precedes the first of two main themes given out on cellos and double basses. Woodwind reiterate this before the strings take up the theme in a full statement. Horns usher in a second theme first heard from the clarinet, over pizzicato string accompaniment, whose elegant Mozartian phrases temporarily dispel the earlier serious mood. This leads directly to the first declamatory appearance of the piano where, after some bravura passage work, the opening theme is explored, its gentle romanticism echoing Chopin. Both themes eventually return within an orchestral tutti before brass fanfares signal a brief solo passage that could be likened to a development section. A short orchestral interlude heralds a cadenza characterized by ruminative commentary on the main theme and sparkling pianistic effects. The orchestra returns bringing this one-movement concerto to a rousing conclusion.
Balakirev waited a further five years before embarking on his second concerto attempt and as with the first he left it unfinished. The new work, the Concerto in E flat major was begun in 1861 and its ambitious first movement shows considerably more promise in its large-scale construction. By the end of 1862, however, he had only completed the first movement and extemporised ideas for the rest of the concerto to his friends. Progress halted as Balakirev lost interest and after abandoning the work for nearly forty years he added the second movement in 1906, leaving the finale to be completed and orchestrated, in accordance with his wishes, by Sergey Lyapunov.
Following a held chord woodwind announce the first theme in unison, which after its second appearance leads to a heroic subsidiary theme presaging the first entry of the piano. A brief cadenza ensues before the main second subject is introduced by the piano in the remote key of G flat major, returning later in the unexpected key of D major. A return of the opening tutti leads to an extended development section where the second theme eventually appears as a strict fugato. Trombones make clear the start of the recapitulation where the orchestra is given both themes, reducing the function of the piano to a merely decorative rôle. Balakirev now turns to the remote key of B minor that supports the solemn beauty of the Adagio. The main theme, a gentle rising melody, is a chant from the Russian Orthodox Requiem ‘So sviatymi upokoi’, played first by the orchestra then repeated in arpeggiated chords by the piano. After several woodwind and brass entries a second theme appears, first in the cellos, its major tonality offering a glimpse of hope or possibly salvation. After considerable development of the Requiem theme, it is recapitulated as an orchestral tutti, where sonorous brass chords and bravura piano-writing make for compelling listening. In a coda, the Requiem theme disappears and the opening material from the first movement is recalled by the oboe which bridges this slow movement to the concluding Allegro risoluto. Balakirev here combines exuberance with bell-like patterns, which make a perfect foil to the solemnity of the slow movement. After many passages of colourful orchestration and a brief fugato trumpets (marked nobile) recall the opening theme of the concerto, and the work concludes as it began, in E flat major.
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