Movement 1: Largo – Allegro vivo
Movement 2: Scherzo: Vivo – Poco meno mosso
Movement 3: Andante
Movement 4: Finale: Allegro moderato – Tempo di Polacca
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.
from notes by Edward Garden © 1998