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Mili BALAKIREV (1837-1910)
Complete Piano Works 5
Réminiscenses de 'Opéra 'La Vie pour le Czar' (Glinka) (revised version 1899) [11:54]
Mikhail GLINKA (1804-1857)
Ruslan and Lyudmila – Chernomor's march (?1860s) (arr. Balakirev) [4:19]
Frederyk CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Piano concerto 1 in E minor Op.11 – ii Romanza – larghetto (1905) (arr. Balakirev) [8:06]
Mili BALAKIREV
Impromptu (after Chopin Préludes) (1907) [4:57]
Frederyk CHOPIN
Scherzo 2 Op.31 (cadenza by Balakirev) (1894) [10:40]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Mazurka brillante S221 (original version) (1850) [4:48]
Mazurka brillante S221 (coda by Balakirev) (1898) [4:56]
Ludwig Van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
String Quartet 8 in E minor Op. 59 No.2 – iii Allegretto (1862) (arr. Balakirev) [6:52]
String Quartet 13 in B flat minor Op.130 – v. Cavatina (1859) (arr. Balakirev) [5:52]
Mili BALAKIREV
Gondellied in A minor (1901) [6:43]
Tarantelle (1901) [5:54]
Polonaise brillante (1853-54) [3:11]
Nicholas Walker (piano)
rec. 2018, Saint Silas the Martyr Church, Kentish Town, London
notes in English and German
GRAND PIANO GP811 [79:35]

Nicholas Walker reaches volume 5 of his excellent and comprehensive series containing all of Balakirev's solo piano music. The first volume received a very positive review back in 2013 (review) and I have very much enjoyed listening to the others. Most recordings of Balakirev piano music tend to feature his justly famous showpiece Islamey, his transcription of Glinka's song The Lark or occasionally the Sonata in B flat minor yet there remains a wealth of well-written, entertaining pieces which are seldom programmed. Alexander Paley's 1992 complete traversal is now on Brilliant Classics (94086 Review) and fills 6 CDs. For those of us who relish completeness in our favourite composers, Walker on Grand Piano has already added four works that don't make it into Paley's set including an early sonata lasting just over thirty minutes. This fifth volume adds four more, although admittedly only one is an original work – the Polonaise brillante written when Balakirev was 16 or 17 years old and his earliest surviving piano piece.

After four volumes which, with four exceptions, feature original works, what we have here is an exploration of Balakirev’s passion for editing, paraphrasing and transcribing the music of others. The most substantial work on offer opens the recital, the Réminiscenses de 'Opéra 'La Vie pour le Czar' after Glinka. Inspired by Liszt's many opera fantasies, this is the only example of the kind from the Russian master. It is listed as the second version and is a revision of a work that he wrote in his late teens; the original exists only in fragments now so will probably not make it onto disc (though stranger things have happened). The fantasie is in two large sections; the first explores the Act 1 trio in which Antonida pleads with her father to allow her to marry her fiancé Sobinin. As in the original trio, the simple, plaintive melody is built up with layers of counter-melodies; here it further evolves into a web of chromatic filigree weaving above and below the melody. A dramatic climax is reached, the surges of fast running scale passages suggesting the wind-driven snow of the upcoming winter. The storm dies away and the first notes of a dance are heard; this is the energetic Polonaise from the Men's Chorus in Act 3. This is real virtuoso stuff, pages laden with octaves, fleet passagework and a breathless race to the finale; the composer of the colourful oriental fantasy Islamey is very much in evidence here but this isn't an empty showpiece. The pianist must spin out the yearning lyricism of Glinka's melodies despite the shimmering curtains of notes and not allow the complexity of the writing to diminish the nobility of the Polonaise. Nicholas Walker's exceptional pianism does it justice on both counts.

I have enjoyed this wonderful work since first hearing Earl Wild's magisterial account (review) and Balakirev's passion for Glinka's music shines through every bar. He could play this opera from memory at a moment's notice and was doubtless as familiar with the rest of Glinka's output. His transcription of the Jota Aragonesa appeared on Volume 4 of Walker's series and there are two song transcriptions still to come. The next work on the disc is a straightforward but nonetheless enjoyable transcription of Chernomor’s March, much simpler than the Liszt transcription that Balakirev edited over twenty years later.

Chopin’s music was another love of Balakirev's loves and like the Polish master he wrote Mazurkas, Nocturnes, Scherzi and Valses; the early Polonaise brillante that rounds off this disc is full of echoes of Chopin, especially the C minor polonaise from Op.40. In 1910 he re-orchestrated the E minor Concerto Op.11 and five years prior to that he prepared a solo piano version of the Romance from that Concerto. I was a little surprised by the fast tempo that Walker adopts for this – at 8:06 he is a minute faster than the fastest in my collection (Daniel Berman on Danacord DACOCD483) and two and a half minutes faster than my preferred version – Marc-André Hamelin on Hyperion CDA66765. While the lines are beautifully played, for me, at least, it all feels a little rushed.

The next piece, the Impromptu, is more successful, combining, expanding and moulding, in a Russian Godowsky-like way, two of Chopin's Préludes (Op.28 Nos. 11 and 14) to make an effective new work.

The next two works are originals by Chopin and Liszt with codas by Balakirev. Chopin's Scherzo Op.31 is played in full and we have to wait until the final section before Balakirev takes over, adding the theme of the central sostenuto as a counter melody to the characteristic descending arpeggio motif as well as filling out some of the texture with interlocking chords. Liszt's Mazurka brillante is played twice: the original version is followed by the version with Balakirev's coda in which Liszt's fairly low key final five bars are replaced with a dashing climax topped off with a run of interlocking octaves.

The two transcriptions of movements from Beethoven string quartets are very well executed and fare well almost as piano sonata movements in their own right. The allegretto from the Rasumovsky works particularly well for me in this regard and Walker negotiates the devilish middle section with its triplets, running thirds, sixths and (remarkably) tenths with admiral aplomb.

The work closes with three original works including the fore-mentioned polonaise. The singing Gondolier in the excellent Gondellied has evidently made the journey all the way from mother Russia and judging by the huge central climax his tale was one worth hearing. The Tarantella, like the examples by Chopin or Liapunov, is too urbane to suggest dancers in the throes of a spider-bitten frenzy but is still a wonderful example of Russian virtuosity at its best, echoing sections of Islamey and, along with that work, doubtless influencing Liapunov in his transcendental étude Lezghinka.

My slight misgivings about the Chopin Romance aside, I really enjoyed this disc. Nicholas Walker has the measure of Balakirev's style and certainly the technique to tackle the extraordinary demands Balakirev places on his performers, whether that be in the rich writing of the Tarantelle or Impromptu, the swathes of athletic octaves and arpeggios or in the grace-under-pressure of the Trio from the Glinka Réminiscenses. I eagerly await the next instalment.

Rob Challinor



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