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Hyperion Records

CDD22030 - Balakirev: Symphonies & Symphonic Poems
(Originally issued on CDA66691/2)

Recording details: Various dates
Unknown, Unknown
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Antony Howell
Release date: October 1998
Total duration: 127 minutes 25 seconds

'The performances bring more beautiful playing from The Philharmonia' (The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs)

'Un doble álbum de esucha agradabilisima' (Musica, Italy)

Symphonies & Symphonic Poems
Andante  [13'29]
Romanza: Andante  [9'08]
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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Mily Balakirev was the brilliant, dynamic leader of the group of St Petersburg composers known as ‘The Mighty Handful’ or ‘The Five’, which included, besides himself, Mussorgsky, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov and Cui. As well as stimulating these other men, who might never have taken up composition but for him, he was a very fine composer in his own right. Completely lacking in conventional musical training, he had educated himself by studying the works of the Western masters and of his great Russian predecessor, Mikhail Glinka, and he was thus without the preconceived ideas inculcated in conservatoires of music in his day. He was therefore uniquely placed to adapt Russian folksong for use in art music without straitjacketing it or destroying its special characteristics, as is clearly shown throughout the symphonic poem Russia and in the finale of the first symphony.

Symphony No 1 in C major was started in 1864 and, according to Rimsky-Korsakov in his autobiography, about one-third of the first movement had been written down in score by 1866. The rest of the work had been extemporized to his friends—Balakirev was a magnificent pianist. But the symphony was then laid aside and not taken up again until the early 1890s; it was finished by the end of 1897 and first performed the following year. It was begun, then, before Tchaikovsky had written any of his symphonies and not completed until after the death of Balakirev’s Moscow contemporary. But it shows no signs of its protracted conception and is one of the greatest nineteenth-century Russian symphonies.

The first movement, Allegro vivo, is preceded by an introductory Largo which contains the seeds of the whole movement, for both the first and second subjects of the Allegro are derived from it. While ostensibly in sonata form, the continuous development of the scintillating material is a feature of Balakirev’s style, and the mosaic patterns burgeon in all directions without adhering to strict formal rigidities, culminating in a final apotheosis in the guise of an augmentation of all the parts, accompanied by fresco-like diminutions of themselves.

The substantial Scherzo originally intended for this symphony was later included in Balakirev’s second symphony; because of the length of the other movements, the Scherzo here is much more pithy, ideally suited to its place in the scheme. An atmosphere of mystery surrounds the first subject, and the second, announced by the cor anglais—very prominently used throughout the symphony—twists and turns within itself in sinuous fashion. A central, slightly slower, trio section is tinged with bitter-sweetness.

The slow movement is a gorgeous poetic nocturne in D flat major, a rich key of which Balakirev was particularly fond. It only gradually unfolds itself, revealing ever new facets of the two principal subjects in the sonata-rondo structure, very unusual for a slow movement.

It breaks off in harp arpeggios which lead directly into the Finale, a superb symphonic study in rhythm based on three Russian folksongs. The first (‘Sharlatarla from Partarla’) was given to Balakirev by Rimsky-Korsakov, whose uncle Petr Petrovich had sung it to him as a boy. The second, starting with a reiterated note on the clarinet, had been sung to the composer, when he was travelling third class on the Finnish railway, by a blind beggar who accompanied himself on an old harp which was out of tune, afterwards passing round his hat. This virile tune has hardly any melody to speak of, but is an ideal vehicle for Balakirev’s overflowing vitality. The third folksong possesses rhythmic punch of an unusual nature: the main accent is on the fourth beat, and the rest of the tune seems to work away from this beat, an accent on the penultimate note of the phrase being the only other discernible stress. Its initial rhythmic bite is enhanced by the melody’s being allotted to the cellos in their upper register, only one of the masterstrokes of orchestration employed by Balakirev. The folksongs, sufficiently different to be easily distinguishable, are contrasted and combined in a kaleidesope of sound, bringing to an end a symphony which is full of subtle touches and profound inventiveness.

The symphonic poem Russia originated as ‘Second Overture on Russian Themes’, first performed in 1864. It was revised and published as Musical Picture, ‘1000 years’ in 1869, and further slight revisions were made and a superfluous programme was concocted for it in the 1880s; this version was first published as symphonic poem Rus’ (the old name for Russia) in 1889. The three folksongs employed by Balakirev had all been collected by himself on an expedition up the River Volga in 1860, and are furnished with an authentic ambience very seldom matched and never surpassed by other Russian composers.

A slow, evocative theme in the Dorian mode transposed (‘It was not the wind’) is used as an introduction and epilogue, and two fast dance themes are employed in the main, sonata-form Allegro moderato. ‘It was not the wind’ gives a feeling of epic antiquity and is felicitously repeated and developed in differing surroundings in a manner to be used by Tchaikovsky in the original version of the first movement of his second symphony, much influenced by this work. The two folk dance themes, one in the major and the other in the minor mode, are bridged by a version of ‘It was not the wind’, which also recurs in combination with them in the development section, so that it is totally integrated into the structure in a manner which gives intellectual as well as poetic satisfaction. A new, original melody serves to flesh out the material, occurring towards the end of the exposition and in the recapitulation.

The work finishes as it began, but with the addition of the first dance theme which is ingeniously incorporated in the slow closing bars creating, in the end, a magic caught only for a moment before its elusive aural fragrance fades. The creative imagination displayed by Balakirev is of a very high order, and he was right to be proud of this seminal and beautiful composition.

Written in 1857/8, the Overture on Three Russian Themes was the first purely orchestral work of Balakirev to be based on Russian folksongs. It is a remarkable composition for a young man in his early twenties. An elegantly treated slow folksong, ‘The silver birch’, acts as an introduction and epilogue, sandwiching an Allegro moderato in sonata form. The first subject of this, ‘In the fields stands a birch tree’, in B minor, is the folksong which was to such an extent to dominate the finale of the fourth symphony of Tchaikovsky who, however, destroyed its essentially three-minim structure by inserting an extra minim, rendering the theme tiresomely four-square. Balakirev’s treatment is much more convincing. The music modulates to the relative major key of D for the contrasting second subject, ‘There was at the feast’, which was to be used by Stravinsky in his ballet Petrushka. Thus, this overture had important repercussions in Russian music which could not have been foreseen at the time of its first performance in St Petersburg at a University concert in early January, 1859. Nor was it appreciated then that it is not a mere pot-pourri of folk themes, but the earliest example of the successful reconciliation of Russian folk materials with sonata structure, something which Balakirev’s predecessor Glinka had never achieved.

The main work on the symphonic poem Tamara, the programme of which is based on verses by the Romantic poet Mikhail Lermontov, a Russian of Scottish ancestry, was carried out between 1876 and 1879, though Balakirev had planned its composition in the 1860s and was not to add the finishing touches until 1882. Dedicated to Liszt, it is Balakirev’s only orchestral composition dating from his middle years and was his most forward-looking and influential work. For instance, a phrase from the introduction was appropriated by Rimsky-Korsakov and used as the recurring motive for Sheherazade in that composer’s well-known piece written in the late 1880s, and this evocative and impressionistic introduction greatly moved Debussy.

Balakirev employs a large orchestra including cor anglais, tuba, two harps and a battery of percussion. The introduction, Andante maestoso, depicts a deep gorge in the Caucasus mountains, in which the River Terek ‘roars in the gloom’. In an ancient tower on a ‘dark crag’ lived the Princess Tamara, ‘beautiful as an angel from heaven, evil and cunning as a demon’. A rapidly moving ‘agitato’ Allegro constitutes the principal part of the work. After initial Circassian dance-like material, Tamara herself is portrayed by two themes, one sinuously and chromatically turning in upon itself, with oriental and pagan effect, and the other (with harp accompaniment) luscious and voluptuous, for she lures male passers-by to spend the night with her. After considerable development of these themes, by which time a hapless traveller has entered the castle and been enticed onto Tamara’s couch, the revelries begin, Vivace. ‘Then fingers were warmly interlaced, lips fell upon lips, and strange savage sounds the whole night through, echoed to the vaults.’ As dawn approaches, at the most frenzied climax of all with the full orchestra and a final overpowering stroke of the tam-tam, her lover is hurled from the battlements, the introductory material returns, and the ‘rushing and tumbling waves’ of the River Terek ‘seem to weep’ as the silent corpse swirls past in their current. A suspicion of Tamara’s second, voluptuous, theme is heard as there is ‘at the window a flutter of white, a wafted whisper of “Farewell”’. The music gradually subsides into the depths whence it sprang, as the fairy-tale picture fades into the distance.

Except for Borodin’s Polovstian Dances, no other nineteenth-century Russian music can be compared with Tamara for exotic savagery and Romantic lusciousness; Sheherazade, so indebted to it, while attractive in many ways, is pallid by comparison. And Balakirev in his music has achieved a perfect match with the out-and-out Romanticism of the poem.

Balakirev began work on his Symphony No 2 in D minor in 1900, completing it in 1908. It was premiered the following year under the direction of Sergei Liapunov in St Petersburg, and it was performed soon afterwards in Paris. But its subsequent performances have been few, which is a pity, since it is an attractive and inspired work.

Balakirev’s firm grasp of a taut sonata structure is revealed in the first movement; the only contemporary symphony of equal stature which is comparable in this respect is Sibelius’s third (1904–1907). Two abrupt chords lead straight into the first subject, whose basic emphasis is a cross-rhythm of 6/8 and 3/4. The second subject is in the remote key of D flat major, a favourite tonality of Balakirev. After a pithy and ingenious development it is recapitulated (after the first subject) in D major. Such semitonal shifts were an important feature of Balakirev’s style.

The second movement, Scherzo ‘alla Cosacca’—conceived much earlier and originally intended for the first symphony—is the kernel of the whole work. Its classical control is remarkable. After a six-bar introduction, used at strategic points later on, the main theme, in B minor, with its accent on the second crotchet of the phrase, pulsates with vitality, and is followed by a subsidiary motive in which trumpets and trombones are answered by flute and piccolo with charming naivety. A short development and recapitulation establish that the Scherzo is in full sonata form. In the trio the Russian folksong ‘The snow is melting’ is employed; the underlying excitement is maintained by a bustling semiquaver accompaniment. In the compressed reprise of the Scherzo this theme replaces the subsidiary motive, a subtle master stroke.

The slow movement is an engaging Romanza in F?major, the second theme of which recurs in the splendidly rhythmical polonaise Finale (again in D minor), infinitely superior, by the way, to the polonaise Finale of Tchaikovsky’s third symphony. The second subject of Balakirev’s Finale, which like its counterpart in the first movement is in D flat major and has an oriental piquancy, is allotted in the first instance to the flavoursome cor anglais; it is based on the folksong ‘We have seen in our garden’. The symphony ends in D major with a triumphant coda.

Terser than Balakirev’s first symphony, this composition is hardly less succinct than the Sibelius symphony already mentioned. Both works are as far as it is possible to be from the contemporary Mahlerian idea of a symphony. Both works are eminently successful, demonstrating that the all-embracingly multi-faceted did not have a monopoly over the selectively concise in the early twentieth century. And both works have been unjustly neglected.

Edward Garden © 1998

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