Balakirev Orchestral Works

Mily Balakirev (1837-1910)
Overture for orchestra to W. Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’ (1858–1861 rev. 1902-1905)
Piano Concerto No.1 in F sharp minor (1855-56)
Overture on Three Russian Folk Songs (1858)
Symphony No.2 in D minor (1900-08)
Danara Klinton (piano)
Niederrheinische Sinfoniker/Mihkel Kütson
rec. 2021, Theater Mönchengladbach, Germany
MDG 952 2236-6 SACD [68]

Mily Balakirev’s fame in the world of music these days rests mainly on his role as the driving force behind that group of nationalist Russian composers who became known as “The Mighty Handful”.  Even away from that small group, Balakirev’s influence advising and cajoling composers such as Tchaikovsky regarding their work has had a more enduring legacy than his own fairly modest body of compositions.  That said, none of the works on this disc are unknown in the catalogue but on the other hand Balakirev never managed to write a popular “hit” that ensured his name remained well-known to the wider public.  His Symphony No.1 was recorded in famous LP versions by the likes of Beecham and Karajan – the latter in the 1950‘s and the former in the early 60’s and his Islamey has a certain showpiece status.  Vassily Sinaisky recorded two discs for Chandos which includes all the music here with the BBC Philharmonic nearly 25 years ago so there is certainly room in the catalogue for new versions especially if offered in SACD sound as here.  I listened to the SACD stereo layer but it can be listened to in 5.1 and what MDG describe as “2+2+2” formats alongside the standard CD layer.

Certainly the sound on this new recording gives the orchestra a very attractive and natural bloom.  Looking at the photograph of the orchestra in concert the string strength is relatively small with 5 basses, 7 celli and proportional upper strings.  In the opening Overture ‘King Lear’ the timpani have a nice “ping” to their sound and the brass an equivalent rich and full sound which is actually a bit more appealing than that caught by the Chandos engineers which sounds a fraction woolly now.  The Niederrheinische Sinfoniker strings certainly sound poised and polished but lacking in weight.  Of course direct comparisons to old Soviet/Melodiya recordings from 1974 with Svetlanov and his brazen USSR Symphony Orchestra contrast a wholly different performing aesthetic.  I must admit I still enjoy that sound in this type of music very much and those recordings were unusual in that they included other parts of the incidental music of which this overture is the most familiar/often recorded part.  So allowing for Svetlanov to be an “outlier” but one worth hearing, this new disc measures up well.  Conductor Mihkel Kütson sets a tempo a bit steadier than Sinaisky but this allows some swagger into the work to good effect. 

The Piano Concerto in F sharp minor Op.1is sometimes subtitled “Youth”.  The opus number indicates Balakirev’s first large-scale composition and it is a pretty impressive one for an eighteen year old composer.  According to the liner note it was premiered on February 12th 1856 with Balakirev appearing as both composer and pianist for the first time.  What has survived is a sub-fourteen minute one movement work although apparently there is some evidence of there being a companion Scherzo to follow the existing Allegro Moderato but the music for this is currently lost if it ever existed.  In isolation the three minute orchestral introduction seems quite long in a work this brief.  Again over the years there have been several recordings – Howard Shelley with Sinaisky on Chandos, Malcolm Binns with David Lloyd-Jones on Hyperion as part of their extensive “Romantic Piano Concerto” series and Anastasia Seifetdinova with Dmitri Yablonsky on Naxos to name but three.  Both Shelley and Binns are very good – I have not heard the Naxos collection.  Lloyd-Jones – a Russian music specialist – is rather more urgent and impassioned than Kütson and Binns plays with his usual easy virtuosity.  That said this is not a big keyboard/display piece so the slightly pensive/inward playing of Dinara Klinton for Kütson is both appropriate and attractive.  The piece is equally appealing but with a distinct sense of being truncated.  Again the engineering here is well handled with a good natural balance between soloist and orchestra.  The following Overture on Three Russian Themes is again an early work – written just two years after the concerto.  This is a work explicitly celebrating the musical riches of folk-Russia and sets out for the composers following Balakirev an explicitly nationalistic trend.  Of course Balakirev was in turn following in the footsteps of Mikhail Glinka who is credited with initiating the use of Russian folk-music in the classical concert-hall.  But it was Balakirev with a longer life and greater determination who cemented that relationship through his own and other’s work.  Again the performance here has an attractive glow and lyrical flow with the themes feeling.  The second theme introduced by the clarinet playing “the birch tree” which is much more familiar from its more febrile and dramatic appearance in the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.4 as the second subject.  This is a piece where the nature of the themes means that the work does benefit from more bite and less grace.  Again an old Melodiya/Svetlanov/USSR SO recording shows the opposite extreme.  Interestingly the overall length of the work is all but identical – Kütson 8:18 to Svetlanov’s 8:20 [when Svetlanov re-recorded the work with the Philharmonia for Hyperion the result was a rather leaden 9:10 – overall those 2 discs were something of a disappointment].  But you can hear that Kütson’s strings are not “digging into” the strings in the way Svetlanov demands of his Soviet players.  My loyalty is probably for the earlier performance simply because that is the sound I grew up hearing in this type of music but hard not to find this attractive new performance effective too.

The disc is completed by the late Symphony No.2 in D minor.  One thing this does prove is that for all Balakirev’s promotion of National Music he was at heart a musical conservative.  This symphony, which he did not complete until 1908, does not sound substantively different from the piano concerto of half a century earlier.  As mentioned above, his Symphony No.1 in C major undoubtedly deserves its tenuous toehold in the repertory although I wonder when it was last performed in concert in the UK. Symphony No.2 in D minor performed here shares many of the same attractive characteristics although without the melodic memorability that abounds in the earlier work.  Kütson’s approach matches that of the rest of the disc – fluent and lyrical, attractively played and well recorded.  The swaying second subject initially on the oboe in the first movement is a good example of this.  In this movement Svetlanov on Hyperion is a full minute quicker than Kütson and with good effect injecting urgency where Kütson can seem too soft-centred.  Back with the USSR SO Svetlanov was a further 30 seconds quicker still.  Sinaisky and Kondrashin are very close to Svetlanov’s London timings too although Kondrashin’s glassy and harsh Melodiya recording rather undermines the characterful playing of the Moscow Philharmonic.  Overall the flame of drama burns quite low in this movement on this new disc.  The second movement is marked Scherzo alla Cosacca.  Interestingly Kütson is faster than just about any of the other versions excepting Kondrashin who is a rather breathless 6:28 to Kütson’s 7:29.  But both are significantly preferable to Svetlanov’s laboured 8:37 which is transformed from an adrenaline fuelled dance into a rather gentile Cossack knit and natter session.  Clearly Kütson has a specific vision for all of this repertoire which is to smooth away the roughness audible in other versions.  But all the resulting finesse that results does come at the price of visceral excitement.  The approach works best in the third movement Romanza where the gentle melancholy of the music is well suited to Kütson’s reflective and graceful style.  Here the upper strings of the Niederrheinische Sinfoniker can float their melodies without forcing them through heavier instrumental textures.  Yes it is discreet and gives the music a more measured character than the ardour found in comparable versions – some may respond to this under-emoting more than myself.  But there is no doubting the actual quality of the playing – there’s a lovely intertwining passage for solo woodwind over rippling strings around the 6:00 minute mark which shows the virtues of this approach well.  The finale is a festive Tempo di Polacca where the extra adrenalin and flair of the alternative versions already mentioned seems preferable – although it is Kondrashin’s turn to suddenly pull the tempo right back giving the music a more processional/ceremonial character than fiery dance.  This music does underline all over again just how ‘traditional’ Balakirev was.  The closing two and a half minutes seek to ramp up the energy of the work building towards an exuberant conclusion with reasonable success.  Again this recording benefits from the detail of the quite heavy scoring registering very well with the percussion effectively present.  For sure this is a well-written and highly competent work.  But returning to it after quite a long time since I last sat down and listened in detail does reinforce the opinion that it is one of the less characterful or indeed melodically memorable Russian Romantic Symphonies.  The fact that it seems at least twenty years too late would be telling if ultimately irrelevant were the music itself more compelling.

So a programme of attractive music, interpreted with consistent empathy if a little lacking in fire, but well played throughout.  The tri-lingual notes are sufficient without being revelatory with the actual engineering of the disc probably its standout feature.

Nick Barnard

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