Many will be surprised to find three
by Balakirev on volume one of Grand Piano's new survey of his complete
solo piano works. Labels, pianists and critics seem to assume generally
that there is only one, as Mirare have done on this 2012 release: the
"Piano Sonata in B flat minor" played by Etsuko Hirose is "Balakirev's
only sonata". What then has Nicholas Walker got his hands on? There
is an obvious clue in the fact that that each sonata is in B flat minor,
yet Balakirev did not simply revise the original work - even a quick
perusal of the track-listing will suffice to show that these are three
different sonatas. All doubts are swept away once the music is heard,
despite some obvious overlap or recycling of material: Balakirev wrote
piano sonatas. Walker explains the differences - not to
mention the reason for the sudden ending of op.3 - in his booklet notes.
So it is that, whilst Walker has much hallowed competition as far as
the 1905 Sonata is concerned, he has the field pretty much to himself
with the other two, especially op.3, which - 150 years on - is revealed
as a world premiere. Walker writes that the 1905 incarnation is "surely
the most original, wholly Russian, structurally successful and moving
of all Russian sonatas, comparable with that of Liszt." That is a big
claim - does it really make sense to discount the piano sonatas of Skriabin,
Mossolov, Kabalevsky, Miaskovsky, Medtner or Prokofiev? - and one moreover
that reasserts the frankly controversial idea that Liszt's B minor sonata
stood aloft fifty years earlier. In fact, Balakirev's is an altogether
more approachable, more immediate work, flowing with unforgettable Slavic
flourishes and more cosmopolitan rhythms.
Walker and Hirose coincide very much in the piano sonata they both agree
on, with very similar timings for all four movements, and a unity of
approach that suggests Balakirev intended it played like this. Unlike
Grand Piano's, the Mirare disc is, for the present at least, a standalone
offering. Unfortunately the recording is marred by slight electrical
interference that seems to run all the way through Hirose's recital
and is most in evidence in the quiet spaces, especially at the ends
of tracks. This very soft hiss may not be audible to all ears, especially
under normal listening conditions, but at a high volume through headphones
it is distinctly audible, especially in the quiet opening of The
. How this got past Mirare's production team is a mystery, but
on the whole it is unlikely to undermine enjoyment of Hirose's programme.
There is also some soft rustling in the opening Glinka Variations
and elsewhere, but again not all that noticeable. Grand Piano's engineers
have been more diligent, with good, solid audio throughout at Wyastone
Leys - although someone slipped up to allow 'Lees'.
Hirose 'winds down' with Islamey
, probably Balakirev's best-known
work, and a favourite of virtuosos wishing to demonstrate their prowess.
It is not the most difficult piece in the repertoire, as it was long
reputed to be, but it does make relentless, incredible demands on the
performer. Hirose is equal to them, even if she does downplay somewhat
the 'Oriental Fantasy' aspect. On the other hand, her saccharine-free
is preferable to the syrup served up by some.
Whilst both discs retail at the expensive end of things, Hirose's recital
will likely hold wider appeal for those looking for a one-off purchase,
with the lyrical loveliness of L'Alouette
and Au Jardin
the known thrills of Islamey
, the rhythmic jollity of the Toccata
all actually more French, Scandinavian or indeed Polish than Russian.
Nationality is not in question though when it comes to Balakirev's virtuosic
Variations on themes from Mikhail Glinka's 'A Life for the Tsar'
certainly not when a series of gentle high trills imitates the music
of the balalaika! On the other hand, Grand Piano give better value for
money in terms of minutes and audio quality. Walker is excellent - keeping
things moving, fresh, breezy, never too Russian for a composer who sounds
- counter to his overtly nationalistic ideals - surprisingly occidental.
Mirare's Booklet notes are in English, French and, thoughtfully, Japanese,
in place of which Grand Piano have the more orthodox German. There is
more Gro Thorsen on their front cover, a vaguely Russian-looking picture
- although the sun does shine in Russia too, not least in Balakirev's
delightful, outstanding piano music.
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