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Mili Alekseyevich BALAKIREV (1837-1910)
Complete Piano Works - 1
Sonata in B flat minor (1905) [24:27]
Sonata in B flat minor, Op.5 (1856) (Première Sonate) [20:46]
Sonata in B flat minor, Op.3 (1855) (Grand Sonate)* [31:10]
Nicholas Walker (piano)
rec. Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, UK, 10-13 June 2012
* World Première Recording
GRAND PIANO GP636 [76:23]

Balakirev, despite being known as as a tireless campaigner on behalf of others including the ‘mighty handful’ (Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Borodin and Cui) is much less well known today than those whose music advocated. In part this could be due to the hugely long periods he took to complete many of his works despite being very fast at writing others. It could also be due to the fact that he went out of fashion while he was still working. Many of his pieces disappeared into oblivion almost as soon as they were completed.
 
Now is surely an opportune moment for a serious reassessment. The times we live in seem to be open to music from any and every period with perhaps the greatest amount of choice and availability ever. In any event what is not in doubt is the music itself which is ravishingly beautiful and quintessentially Russian.
 
The notes written for the present disc by pianist Nicholas Walker reveal the background to the three sonatas. They are played here in the reverse order to the one in which they were written. The Sonata in B flat minor (1905) dates from five years before Balakirev’s death at the age of 73. It is a distillation of all three and its long gestation is explained by the fact that Balakirev was always striving to write a work that told the entire history of Russia. Even as a very young man he envisaged writing a symphony that did just that. While others were influenced by the idea and used elements in their own compositions Balakirev never actually wrote it. For someone who prided himself on being an amateur musician in the sense that he had studied mathematics not music, worked as a railway clerk and only ever received ten piano lessons in his life, his music is astonishingly accomplished.
 
The 1905 sonata begins with an attempt at describing ancient Rus, the very cradle of Russia, full of deep forests and wide open steppes. The second movement is a mazurka - a common feature in all three sonatas. It is here completely rewritten but with the essential core remaining giving a kind of continuity to Balakirev’s main ideas on such a sonata. It is a rich evocation of the Russian dance. There is something reminiscent here of his most well-known work Islamey which though inspired by points further East nevertheless has elements in common. The Intermezzo is quite hauntingly beautiful with deliciously long flowing lines that make a brief reappearance in the Finale. The latter is in the form of an allusion to a spirited Ukrainian gopak in which it easy to imagine the shooting out of legs while the dancer bobs up and down from his crouched position with arms folded. This wildly energetic movement subsides and finishes on a calm and reflective note. As Mr Walker points out, this seems to suggest the endless nature of Russia as it stretches further and further east. This Sonata is a monumental work of striking originality. It places huge demands on any performer who takes it on. Walker, a great champion of Balakirev, makes a fabulous job of it. It is to be hoped that, along with other recent recordings, this will help it to gain its rightful place as one of the great piano sonatas.
 
It is interesting going back in time to hear the other two sonatas. Each contains the germs of the final version. It is notable how much Balakirev achieved at such an early age for they were written when he was only 19 and 18 respectively. Amazingly the earliest and longest and regrettably unfinished sonata, his op. 3, here receives its world première recording 158 years after its composition and 103 years after Balakirev’s death. Balakirev clearly got a lot right with that first attempt and both of those early versions are well worth listening to. Together with the 1905 final version they make this disc an extremely valuable resource and one that will repay repeated hearings.
 
All the playing is exemplary and Nicholas Walker whose championing of Balakirev led to his organising a Balakirev festival on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of composer’s death in 2010 has added another powerful voice to the demands for a reappraisal of this neglected composer.
 
Wonderfully brilliant and virtuosic though Islamey is Balakirev should be known for far more than that since he was not a ‘one trick pony’ by any means. While his legacy lives on through his huge influence on other composers and in his contribution to the establishment of a Russian school of music free from the influence of German repertoire his own relatively small corpus of work is both significant and richly rewarding. This disc helps confirm that.
 
Steve Arloff 

See also review by Byzantion

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