Movement 1: Allegro ma non troppo
Movement 2: Scherzo 'alla Cosacca': Allegro non troppo, ma con fuoco ed energico
Movement 3: Romanza: Andante
Movement 4: Finale: Tempo di Polacca
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.
from notes by Edward Garden © 1998