BALAKIREV: Symphony No. 1 & No. 2 – Phil. Orch. of London/ Herbert von Karajan/ Moscow Radio Symph./ Gennady Rozhdestevensky – Praga Digitals

The two Balakirev symphonies receive intensely colorful treatment in classic readings remastered to good effect.

BALAKIREV: Symphony No. 1 in C Major; Symphony No. 2 in d minor – Philharmonia Orchestra of London/ Herbert von Karajan (C Major)/ Moscow Radio Symph./ Gennady Rozhdestevensky (d minor) – Praga Digitals PRD 250 363, 77:59 (5/12/17) [Harmonia mundi/PIAS] ****: 

My own initiation into the charms of the Balakirev Symphony No. 1 in C (1864; 1897) came by way of the classic 1956 EMI recording by Sir Thomas Beecham and the Royal Philharmonic on the Angel label (35399). The energy and natural sympathy of that reading set a definite standard for me in terms of musicality and elan of ensemble. While under the “tutelage” of Walter Legge at EMI, Herbert von Karajan (1908-1989) leads the Philharmonia Orchestra from Kingsway Hall in November 1949. It would be fascinating to know how and why Karajan approached the work which in his Berlin Philharmonic recording career he did not reconsider. Given the musicians working in the EMI circle, Issay Dobrowen might have been a more logical candidate. In the digitally restored sound, the opening Largo enjoys breadth and resonance, especially in the esteemed winds – the oboe – and string lines. The first five bars supply the materials for the ensuing treatment in loose, mosaical sonata-form. The first full tutti statement establishes the might of the Philharmonia brass section. The working out of the development enjoys no end of exotic, oriental touches in harp and tremolo strings, with frequent incursions by militant brass and cymbals. Typical of the Russian school of composition, the appearance of fugal treatment seems mandated, although the academic procedure does not halt the general impulse of the grand peroration at the end of the movement.

The Scherzo in A Major features a prominent English horn part, which adds a plaintive, melancholy tone to an otherwise Mendelssohnian brio. The sway of the woodwinds has a distinct “Ali Baba” effect that suddenly erupts into a wicked exercise in kaleidoscopic polyphony. Karajan whips the Philharmonia into a fine frenzy for this vivacious pageant. A legato statement reveals Balakirev’s natural capacity for melody, a gift that marks the D-flat Major Andante for musical immortality. A serene nocturne in rondo-sonata form, the Andante’s only “deficit” might lie in its having been extended beyond its musical means. Having already displayed a penchant for treating Russian folk melodies – a trait shard by Rimsky-Korsakov – in his Overture on Russian Themes, Balakirev exploits three folk tunes in his last movement, Allegro maestoso.  The harp transitions us into the first of the tunes, “Sharlatarla from Partarla,” which Rimsky-Korsakov had known as a youth, here set in the low basses and working up as a huge stretto. The clarinet introduces another, more virile tune that swirls dervish-like; and the last song claims its identity by an accent on fourth beat and seeming to invoke Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. The cellos play in high tessitura, adding a distinct color to the proceedings. Rhythmically active, this alertly smart music demands a singular coordination of parts, a testament to Karajan’s control over one of the great British virtuoso orchestras.

The d minor Symphony (1900; 1908) has not enjoyed the same prestige as the C Major, which seems a pity, given its premier under Lyapunov and later appearance in Paris. Two abrupt chords introduce a thematic group based upon a polyrhythmic first subject, 6/8 and ¾. The second subject of an already exuberant orientalism – including a snare drum sound we know from Rimsky-Korsakov – appears in D-flat Major, a favored tonality for Balakirev’s lyric expression. The various, competing energies – including some solid work in the French horn – move to D Major as a resolution of the swaggering tensions. The recorded sound from Radio Moscow and veteran Rozhdestevensky (May 1966) remains distinctly pointed. A spirited, six-bar introduction leads into the b minor Scherzo alla cosacca, with a theme that likes the accent on the second beat. Trumpets and trombones pair off, as do flute and piccolo, for various antiphonal episodes. The pulsating energies evolve in sonata-form, while the militant sensibility reminds us of the tone-poem Thamar. The folk song “The snow is melting” provides the basis of the Trio section, rife with flute and string pizzicati.  A sense of the Russian doxology permeates the latter pages, with strong underlying support in low winds and string basses.

What follows, a lovely Romanza: Andante in F Major, has something of the mystery of the love music from Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet. The secondary theme will recur in the d minor Finale, although once more Balakirev will resolve all conflicts into sunny D Major. The Finale: Tempo di polacca would seem to claim Tchaikovsky’s Third Symphony as brethren, but some would claim the writing to be superior to that of Tchaikovsky. The music plays as though from a huge court scene, a la Glinka, heavy with pomp and ceremony. The most immediate analogy would be the parallel scenes in Mussorgsky’s Boris Gudonov. The militant energies develop by succinct sonata-form principles, with a trumpet fanfare that might be called a plagiarism of the Tchaikovsky Fourth, here cross-fertilized by Glinka.  Rozhdestvensky maintains a sure and transparent hold over this often coloristically complex score, whose brilliance ought to receive more attention in our concert halls.

—Gary Lemco

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