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Hyperion Records

CDA66640 - Balakirev & Rimsky-Korsakov: Piano Concertos
CDA66640

Recording details: October 1992
Huddersfield Town Hall, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Tony Faulkner
Release date: March 1993
Total duration: 59 minutes 59 seconds

'These three works make an excellent programme … all in all an admirably conceived and executed disc' (Gramophone)

'Binns makes a strong case for all three works playing them superbly' (Fanfare, USA)

The Romantic Piano Concerto
Balakirev & Rimsky-Korsakov: Piano Concertos
Andante mosso  [4'16]
Allegro  [3'52]
Allegro non troppo  [13'01]
Adagio  [10'08]
Allegro risoluto  [8'52]
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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Composed in 1882/3, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Piano Concerto was the last of a series of works written in the very happy middle period of his life; other compositions of this period, rich in charming lyricism, included the opera The Snow Maiden and the orchestral Szakza (‘Fairy Tale’). The Concerto was first performed in March 1884 at one of Balakirev’s Free School concerts in St Petersburg and was the last work of Rimsky to be wholly approved of by his erstwhile mentor. While the lyricism is still sincere and deeply felt in the Concerto, the work also foreshadows the master artificer of the later years. Dedicated to the memory of Liszt, it is indebted to that composer in its single-movement structure (akin to Liszt’s Second Concerto in A major) and in its virtuosic decorative pianism. Unlike the Liszt Concerto, however, Rimsky-Korsakov’s is based on only one theme—No 18 from Balakirev’s seminal folksong collection which had been published in 1866.

After four prefatory bars, the folksong is heard on the solo bassoon and again, not long afterwards, on the clarinet. This slow introduction is followed by an Allegretto in the rhythm of a polonaise (‘quasi polacca’), an Andante mosso middle section and a final Allegro, so the basic three-movement form of the conventional concerto is adhered to, but telescoped into a single movement. The metamorphoses of the folksong are always felicitous, and are very clear to the listener. The widely-spaced left-hand accompanimental figure in the lovely central Andante is itself based on the opening of the folksong, while the melodic material is derived from the second part of the song. After this has reached an impassioned climax, the final Allegro is ushered in by vigorous piano chords followed by upward octave semiquaver whole tone scales, and the delight of Balakirev in the genuine warm-hearted lyricism, the well-written bravura passages and the thoroughly appropriate use of the folksong, allows us to place the work still firmly within the Russian nationalist orbit. Furthermore, it influenced concerted pieces by many later Russian composers, including Glazunov, Arensky and, most particularly, Rachmaninov, whose Piano Concerto No 1 was to be written less than a decade later.

It was towards the end of 1855, while he was still in his teens, that the brilliant young pianist and composer Balakirev was brought to St Petersburg from Nizhny-Novgorod by his patron A D Ulybyshev, and his first, very successful, public appearance was as soloist in this concerto movement in February, 1856. It is the work of a young lion who has thoroughly absorbed his sources, especially Chopin in this case (Chopin’s E minor Concerto was to remain a favourite of Balakirev’s all his life). Both the main subjects of the movement are heard in the lengthy opening orchestral tutti, and occur in piano solo versions after the entry of that instrument, as well as in many other forms in the course of the movement. The music must have been especially prepared for the performance, but afterwards Balakirev turned his attention to his Overture on a Spanish march theme given to him by Glinka, to whom he had recently been introduced, and to a very important Overture based on Russian folksongs, and so this delightful first movement was destined to remain on its own, for, by the time he took up he took up his pen for more concerto writing, the experience he had gained in the works already mentioned as well as in the superb overture and incidental music to Shakespeare’s King Lear meant that it was to a new concerto that he turned.

This Concerto was started in 1861 and is in E fiat major, the key of Liszt’s first Piano Concerto; Balakirev was also looking at Anton Rubinstein’s second Concerto and Litolff’s fourth at the time. By the end of 1862 he had completed the first movement and extemporised the rest of the Concerto to his circle, including not only Mussorgsky but Rimsky-Korsakov, who was particularly delighted with the result. But Balakirev abandoned the Concerto and could not be prevailed upon to return to it until 1906, and even then he died in 1910 having added in its entirety only the second movement; Sergei Liapunov completed the finale in accordance with the composer’s wishes which, as his closest associate in the later years, he knew well enough.

The first subject occurs at the beginning of a short orchestral tutti and is clearly destined for a heroic role. It has a certain affinity with the opening of Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony (in E flat) and also with Schumann’s E flat Symphony (No 3, ‘The Rhenish’), of which Balakirev was very fond. The principal second subject is introduced by the piano in the far-flung key of G flat major—and is recapitulated not, as one would expect, in E flat but in D major. This type of semitonal relationship was an important facet of Balakirev’s style, and the key scheme demonstrates his refusal to allow himself to be moulded in a conventional fashion. This is also shown in the remote key of the strikingly beautiful slow movement, B minor. The main theme is the Russian Orthodox Requiem chant ‘So sviatymi upokoi’, played at first by the orchestra after six bars of modulatory introduction, and impeccably treated throughout. The second subject, in D major, sheds a ray of hope in distinguished opposition to, or rather co-existence with, its neighbour. After considerable development of the Requiem theme, it is recapitulated on the full orchestra, with sonorous brass and brilliant piano chords; a low E on the bass tuba is particularly magnificent. Gradually, in a coda, the Requiem theme dies and the first theme of the first movement is used to act as a bridge to the finale, Allegro risoluto. The principal key of this ebullient finale is again unorthodox: G flat major. The first subject is full of rhythic vigour; the second consists of alternating chords of the type used by Mussorgsky at the opening of the coronation scene in Boris Godunov—but here in the Concerto the effect is effervescent rather then severe, a perfect antidote to the gravity of the slow movement. Towards the end, the opening subject of the Concerto reappears, and it finishes as it had begun, in E flat major.

Balakirev’s Concerto does not deserve the neglect into which it has fallen. In spite of the half century or so it took to compose, it holds together well. And the heroic nature of the first movement, the solemn and intense beauty of the second and the scintillation of the third, ensure that the listener is treated to a wide variety of aural experience which adds up, in the end, to a satisfactory whole.

Edward Garden © 1993


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