Hyperion Records

Piano Sonata in B flat minor
1905; movement 2 was originally composer some fifty years earlier and is akin to the Mazurka No 5

'Balakirev: Piano Sonata & other works' (CDA67806)
Balakirev: Piano Sonata & other works
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Movement 1: Andantino
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Movement 2: Mazurka: Moderato
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Movement 3: Intermezzo: Larghetto
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Movement 4: Allegro non troppo, ma con fuoco
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Piano Sonata in B flat minor
The name of Mili Balakirev is forever associated with the group of composers dubbed by the essayist Vladimir Stasov ‘The Mighty Handful’ (in Russian moguchaya kuchka). As the only professionally trained musician in this five-man band (actually that training was a somewhat sporadic affair), Balakirev carried a natural authority. Especially in the 1860s, when his teaching career was at its height, he assumed the role of adviser not only to Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, Musorgsky and Cui, but also at times to those outside the circle, such as Tchaikovsky. Of all those composers, he was also the only pianist of professional competence, although after some prestigious early appearances he turned away from a possible career as a concert artist.

Balakirev’s most famous composition for piano solo is the Oriental Fantasy, Islamey, composed in 1869 at the height of his early prowess, just before a period of withdrawal from the musical world—brought on by a nervous collapse—that saw him working for a time as a clerk for the Russian railway. Before and after that time there is a substantial quantity of less flashy, yet still impressive and technically demanding pieces, including numerous arrangements and elaborations. In this respect, too, he surpassed all his kuchka colleagues. And the culmination of this strand of his output is his single completed sonata.

Like the symphony and the string quartet, the piano sonata was viewed with suspicion by the ‘Mighty Handful’, at least in its nationalist heyday, as a genre tainted with Germanic associations. It is certainly not easy to imagine what such a piece by Musorgsky, Borodin, Cui or Rimsky-Korsakov might have sounded like; nor would any of the group have been content with the Schumannesque boundaries observed by Tchaikovsky in his two completed sonatas. Yet if Chopin could meet the genre halfway, and if Liszt could bend it even further to his will, there was no reason why it should resist a modest degree of russification.

This was evidently Balakirev’s project; and a good deal of effort it cost him. The origins may be traced to an incomplete three-movement sonata from his student years, in the same exotic key of B flat minor. This supplied the second movement of the definitive sonata, by way of adaptation as Balakirev’s fifth mazurka in 1900. It was only in 1905, nearly fifty years after that juvenile sonata, and just five years before his death, that he put the finishing touches to the work. Thereafter it lived a shadowy existence until its first recording in 1951 by Louis Kentner for Columbia, sponsored by the Maharajah of Mysore’s Foundation.

In his determination to de-Germanify the four-movement sonata cycle, Balakirev removed dramatic weight from the first and slow movements. He begins instead with the highly unorthodox ploy of a fugal exposition, on a sinuous subject that embraces folk-like motifs and describes a graceful overall descent. After two academically correct entries, this fugato gives way to lyrical Chopinesque reverie, and the rest of the movement explores the relationship between strict fugue and free rhapsody, as though no one had told the composer that the elements cannot mix (or maybe someone had told him, and he was determined to prove them wrong). Then follows the Mazurka originally composed some fifty years previously, complete with a trio section that decks out its theme in richer ornamentation than any Chopin mazurka.

The third movement is an Intermezzo whose themes consist of fragments that never quite gel into tunes. Decked out with a Scriabinesque accompaniment whose contours subtly contradict the prevailing metre, this apparent exercise in Russian impressionism is the only part of the sonata that feels truly of the twentieth century. If this slow movement is all suggestion and elusiveness, the finale is solid as a rock. Initially Schumannesque in its textures, then Lisztian in its elaborations, it is largely a display of strenuous virtuosity. Yet in the contrasting episodes the slow-movement fragments are recalled, this time converging into full-blown song, and ultimately the sonata reaches a peaceful conclusion.

from notes by David Fanning © 2011

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