Balakirev Islamey Hortus

Mili Balakirev (1837-1910)
L’alouette (1864) 
Islamey, fantasie orientale (1869) 
Au jardin, étude idylle pour la main gauche (1884) 
Mazurka No. 3 (1886) 
Poustinya (1898) 
Valse No. 2 (1900) 
Scherzo No. 3 (1901)
Berceuse (1902)
Pièce de fantaisie (1902) 
Humoresque (1903) 
Fileuse (1906) 
Katherine Nikitine (piano)
No recording date or location given. Notes in English and French.
HORTUS 211 [62]

Mily Balakirev may be best known as the moving spirit behind the composer group “The Mighty Handful” he founded, which also included Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, Mussorgsky and César Cui. They were at first bound by the urge to create a Russian nationalist school of music, independent of the classical structures imposed by the Germanic school, such as Leipzig. Balakierv actually felt that no musical training was necessary: the would-be composer should go ahead and learn his craft as he went along. He was an excellent pianist, a sight-reader of considerable powers, and a magnificent improviser with a natural sense of harmony. According to Rimsky-Korsakov, he was “a marvellous critic, especially a technical critic. He instantly felt every technical imperfection or error, he grasped a defect in form at once.”

Balakirev saw himself as the rôle model and teacher of the others. His magnetic personality allowed him to impose his will on the other four. He instructed them to compose this or that, and often severely criticised the results. This attitude eventually led to the breakdown of relations with the others. Also, like many Russian artists then, he was notably antisemitic. That, as well as musical disagreements, may have contributed to his antipathy towards Anton Rubinstein.

This finely recorded disc allows Katherine Nikitine to showcase her powers, amongst them a considerable ability to differentiate the work of her fingers. Fast runs are exceptionally clear. She plays a Stephen Paulello Opus 102 piano with eight octaves and a fourth. Islamey, that virtuoso warhorse, is presented as fleet of foot rather than poundingly fierce, although there is no loss of power. The pianist relaxes nicely in the central section, and renders it beautifully songful.

Balakirev’s compositional career can be divided into Youth, Silence and Renaissance. Silence occurred when he suffered financial distress and depression. He took up a post as stationmaster on the Warsaw Line in order to support himself and his sisters. He also turned to religion, to the strictest sect of Russian Orthodoxy. There are few works from this fifteen-year period, a creative drought. Two appear here, Mazurka No. 3 and Au jardin, an idyll-study for the left hand. From the Youth come Islamey and L’alouette (The Lark) probably his most well-known piano pieces. I find most of the music here to be little more than salon pieces, and Balakirev’s melodic invention is often prosaic. Tellingly, the most memorable piece on this disc other than Islamey is Balakirev’s arrangement of Mikhail Glinka’s song L’alouette. Flowing piano figurations and a nice gentle melody show why it became very popular.

Jim Westhead

Availability: Editions Hortus