BALAKIREV: Complete Romances for Soprano, Mezzo-soprano, Baritone, and Bass – Margarita Alaverian, soprano/Alexander Gergalov, baritone/Lyubov Sokolova, mezzo-soprano/Georgy Seleznev, bass/Yuri Serov, piano – Delos DE 3376, 2 CDs 51:27; 53:05 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Mili Balakirev (1836-1910) suffers the dubious fate of being remembered predominantly as a great influence: he “fathered” the so-called Mighty Five or Mighty Handful of composers who brought the more “Eastern” influence to the Russian school of music, particularly through the Free Music School in St. Petersburg. His musical career curtailed by a combination of physical and mental setbacks, along with an overzealous religious fundamentalism, Balakirev maintained an interest in vocal composition, utilizing the poetry of A. Koltsov, M. Lermontov, L. Tolstoy, A. Pushkin, and A. Khomyakov as the bases of romance settings, conceived 1855-1865; 1895-1896; and the last set, 1903-1904. The forty-three romances presented on these two discs were recorded at the St. Catherine Lutheran Church, St. Petersburg, Russia. All the participants, except Ms. Alaverdian–who graduated from the Odessa Conservatory–are alumni of the St. Petersburg, Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory.
Balakirev and Dargomyzhsky were the first Russians to refine the classical “romance,” the lyric that depicts a character, a fiery emotion, or a dramatic situation. The sheer abundance of passionate confrontations well complements any love scene from Doctor Zhivago. The Spanish Song (after Mikhailov) has two lovers fleeing or eloping in the dead of night. Embrace and Kiss (Koltsov) celebrates a new groom’s ardent passion. Knight (K. Wilde) contains the cruel irony of a knight’s departure for war, only to return in glory to find his dear bride deceased, under a tombstone. In “Come to Me” (Koltsov), we hear in the singer’s ardent desire something of Schumann. The 1858 Lullaby (After A. Arseniev) caresses a sleeping child, only too aware that childhood must end. Selim’s Song (Lermontov) enjoys that Eastern sensibility in which Balakirev basks, the lyric describing a young warrior setting out for war. “When, Careless You Frolic” (K. Wilde) easily passes as a coloratura aria in the French style. “O Night, Now Show Me In” (Maykov) has a Schubertian drama, as the bass sings of desired assignation; he extends the night’s promise of passionate bliss in “Delirium” (Koltsov). Hebrew Melody (1859, after Lermontov) delivers a palpably exotic color to the keyboard part, a modal scale that would delight Ernest Bloch. Is “Song of the Goldfish” (1860; Lermontov) meant to be a siren’s song, the seduction of an ondine to a young child? Old Man’s Song (1863; Koltsov) has a rhythmic impulse from Schumann or Chopin, the lyric mourning the irreversibility of time. The longest of any cycle, Pushkin’s “Georgian Song” (1863) laments “sad Georgia,” the steppe and far-off shore of another life. The sultry piano part often invokes the mood of Anitra’s Dance from Peer Gynt.
The songs of Balakirev’s late style, 1895-1896, evidence more complexity in his aesthetic arsenal: the emotional themes of the poems become deeper and more philosophical. A meditative air suffuses most of these lyrics, a pantheistic appreciation of the greatness of Nature and its ultimately Divine origin. The piano part has become more plastic, more refined. “Over the Lake” (1895; Kutuzov) takes its cue from Schubert’s Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel, despite its appealing to the elements of water and moonlight. “Desert” (Zhemchuzhnikov) treads with wasteland emotions close to bleak Yeats and sad Mahler. ”I Loved Him” (Koltsov) utilizes the Dantesque or Petrarchan imagery of fire and ice to capture the ardent passion of the (mezzo-soprano’s) persona. Schubert again for “The Sea Foams Not” (after Tolstoy), a meditation that sets the soul in serene consonance with a placid ocean. The 1895 lyric “Nocturne” (after Khomyakov) may be the most perfect of the group: form and content merge in a transcendental thought, a Wordsworth paean to the glories of Nature, gorgeously intoned by baritone Alexander Gergalov. So, too, the combination of lyric, pantheistic outpouring and personal lament informs the subsequent group that includes “Among the Flowers,” “The Rosy Sunset’s Burning Down,” and “When Yellow Fields Wave.”
With No. 11, “Prelude Song” (1895; L. Mey) we hear Schubert’s influence from another source, “An die Musik,” filtered by dark nuances from Glinka. Lermontov’s eerie war poem, “Dream” (1903) takes its musical cue from Mussorgsky, the words themselves disturbing, as by Ambrose Bierce or Wilfred Owen. The “quasi-poet” Afanasy Fet provides the lyrics for “I Have Come to Greet You” (1904), whose piano accompaniment resonates with Schumann. “Whisper, Shy Breathing” (1904; Fet) combines the natural setting with the “kisses and tears” of blissful longing, the piano accompaniment a naturalistic text-painting. “Song” (1904; Lermontov) projects a “yellow leaf” against a storm, reminiscent of O’Henry’s tale, “The Last Leaf.”
The set concludes with three romances from Balakirev’s final period of creative output, 1909, published posthumously. The “intimate” poet Khomyakov, provides the first two lyrics: “Sleep!” the longest of the set, addresses three stages of development–youth, maturity, and old age–and we think of the last of the Richard Strauss songs of 1948, the sun’s setting on a life of toil. “The Sunset” might have been penned by Byron or Blake, suturing our mortal life to the blaze of burning contraries, Heaven and Hell. “The Cliff” we also know as “The Crag” by Lermontov, having been set orchestral by Rachmaninov as his Op. 7. A moment of beauty comes to an ancient crag, who is forever marked by this touch of sentiment and weeps accordingly to piano pearls from Chopin.
So, what do we ultimately discover from this expansive cycle of salon songs by the under-rated Balakirev? Perhaps, to cite the title of the first song (1855), after A. Golovinsky: that you, Balakirev, “Thou Art Full of Fascinating Tenderness.”