BALAKIREV: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2; Piano Concerto No. 1 in F# Minor, Op. 1; Overture to King Lear; In Bohemia; Tamara – Howard Shelley, piano/ BBC Philharmonic/ Vassily Sinaisky, conductor – Chandos

by | Dec 5, 2005 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

BALAKIREV: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2; Piano Concerto No. 1 in
F# Minor, Op. 1; Overture to King Lear; In Bohemia; Tamara – Howard
Shelley, piano/ BBC Philharmonic/ Vassily Sinaisky, conductor – Chandos
CHAN 241-29  64:42; 69:18 (Distrib. Koch) ****:

Listening to the Symphony No. 2 in D Minor (1908) of Mily Balakirev
(1837-1910), I am struck by its melodic and structural similarities to
much of Tchaikovsky, and how freely each composer influenced the other.
Balakirev managed to fuse the musical rhetoric and harmonic syntax of
exotic Russian Asia with the strictures of German symphonic form. But
no less an influence is the tone-poem procedure of Liszt and Smetana,
with its penchant for vivid coloration and relative freedom of design.
These 1997-1998 inscriptions by Vassily Sinaisky, former assistant to
Kiril Kondrashin, enjoy a happy spontaneity of expression, so even we
veterans of the Beecham, Karajan, and Matacic surveys of this music can
bask in the pungent, often big sonorities of a composer who relishes
the folky idiom of his native Russia. The last movement of the D Minor
Symphony, which features a robust polacca, could pass for fellow
mighty-handful member Rimsky-Korsakov, especially since Balakirev
borrowed tunes from that composer’s collection of 100 Russian folk
songs.

There are various degrees of harmonic experimentation in Balakirev,
such as his clashing of major and minor modalities in a work like In
Bohemia (1867; rev. 1906), a reworking of three Czech Themes from a
book of tunes by B.M. Kulda. The one-movement Piano Concerto takes a
page from Mozart, specifically his Concerto in A, K. 488, and links the
tonality of its second movement, F# Minor, to a second theme in A
Major. The writing is less Mozartean than Hummel or Moscheles, each of
whom owes a debt to Chopin. Pianist Howard Shelley’s pearly playing
basks in his bravura figurations, the fioritura of which suggests a
krakowiak rondo with large ritornello passages. For those of us already
addicted to the First Symphony via Beecham and Karajan, we will savor
the Chandos sonics, which project the BBC Philharmonic well into the
stratosphere. Balakirev’s masterpiece is Tamara (1882), a B Minor
tone-poem which describes an evil princess – Balakirev’s counterpart to
Smetana’s Sarka in Ma Vlast. Beecham’s recording of this piece has
proved definitive for half a century, but I won’t disparage Sinaisky’s
powerful rendition. Hints of Scheherazade notwithstanding, Tamara is an
original, with wonderful colors from English horn, oboe, and violins, a
pentatonic love song, and a sultry rhythm in 12/8. Wonderful brush
strokes in music depict Tamara’s vengeful slaughter of the unwary
soldier in her thrall. For the novice to Balakirev or the old initiate,
this is a significant release.

–Gary Lemco

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