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Symphonic Poem 'Tamara'
1876/9; dedicated to Liszt

'Balakirev: Symphonies & Symphonic Poems' (CDD22030)
Balakirev: Symphonies & Symphonic Poems
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Symphonic Poem 'Tamara'
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.

from notes by Edward Garden © 1998

Track-specific metadata
Details for CDD22030 disc 2 track 2
Recording date
5 December 1991
Recording venue
Recording producer
Mark Brown
Recording engineer
Antony Howell
Hyperion usage
  1. Balakirev: Symphony No 2 & Tamara (CDA66586)
    Disc 1 Track 2
    Release date: May 1992
    Deletion date: October 1998
    Superseded by CDD22030
  2. Balakirev: Orchestral Music (CDA66691/2)
    Disc 2 Track 2
    Release date: September 1992
    Deletion date: October 1998
    2CDs Superseded by CDD22030
  3. Balakirev: Symphonies & Symphonic Poems (CDD22030)
    Disc 2 Track 2
    Release date: October 1998
    2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1)
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