Balakirev: Piano Concerto No.1 & 2, Grande Fantasie on Russian Folksongs – Seifetdinova, Russian PO, Dmitry Yablonsky

MILY BALAKIREV (1837-1910)
Piano Concerto No 1 in F sharp minor, Op 1
Piano Concerto No 2 in E flat major
Grande Fantasie on Russian Folksongs, Op 4

Anastasia Seifetdinova, piano
Russian Philharmonic Orchestra
Conducted by Dmitry Yablonsky

Total Time: 69:44

Budget price

Naxos 8.570396

By Jon Yungkans

Mily Balakirev is best known today as the lead composer in the Russian nationalistic music group known as the Five, which met between 1858 and 1871 (the other members were Alexander Borodin, Cesar Cui, Modest Mussorgsky and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov). As leader, Balakirev encouraged the compositional efforts of his colleagues, promoted the nationalist cause, and fought against what he saw as the Germanization of Russian music in the guise of the Saint Petersburg Conservatory. He was active as a composer, pianist, conductor, teacher and mentor until suffering a nervous breakdown in the early 1870s. Several years later, he returned to the classical music scene, minus the influence he had wielded previously. He served in the Imperial Chapel between 1883 and 1895, and devoted the years after his retirement to composition. He died with most of his music either ignored or forgotten. The exception is his piano fantasy Islamey, still considered a formidable challenge for virtuosos.

Balakirev wrote three works for piano and orchestra. Two of them are early—the one-movement First Piano Concerto was composed between 1855 and 1856, and the Fantasie on Russian Folksongs dates from 1852. Both pieces show a thorough understanding of sonata form and the strong influence of Frederic Chopin (the concerto could easily been composed by the Polish master). They also betray the penchant Balakirev showed throughout his career for taking extended periods to finish large compositions, if he finished them at all. He intended to extend both pieces into full-length works but failed to do so. The Second Piano Concerto was begun in 1861 and is written in Balakirev’s mature style, but he never completed it. He finished the first movement in 1862 but, despite encouragement from the other members of the Five and playing excerpts in their presence, did not finish the second movement until 1906. He left the composition of the third movement for his student Serge Lyapunov, following his detailed instructions.

Pianist Anastasia Seifetdinova, conductor Dmitry Yablonsky and the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra perform these works capably, if deliberately in the case of the Second Piano Concerto. The slower speeds allow for greater articulation of the solo part, much of which is buried under the orchestral writing, especially in the first movement. Seifetdinova and Yablonsky ensure that the solo part is heard, thanks to their careful balancing and some help from the recording engineers. But the solo part in the Balakirev Second is not grateful piano writing. The notes mention that the piano writing can compare to that of the Tchaikovsky concertos, and like the Tchaikovsky Second and Third Piano Concertos, the playing in much of the Balakirev Second sounds horrendously difficult without giving the soloist a chance to show off. The third movement, which Lyapunov composed, is more virtuosic. There is still much to recommend the work; the slow movement, with a theme taken from the Russian Orthodox Requiem and an ecclesiastic atmosphere overall, is particularly memorable.

Anastasia Seifetdinova

In the artists’ caution over practical matters, however, these performances lack fire and energy; they feel heavy and deliberate. It may have seemed better to err in this direction, but a more animated traversal would make this music wear better, even with the potential risk of swamping the piano in waves of orchestral sound. The piano struggles less again the orchestra in the other works, but the pace remains premeditated, if less markedly so.

Even with this caveat, this disc is recommended to lovers of Russian music. This is only the second recording of the Balakirev Second, and having all three of his works for piano and orchestra on one disc is extremely handy. Despite their deliberation, Seifetdinova and Yablonsky bring out the beauty of all three scores, and anyone who appreciates the music of Chopin and Tchaikovsky would not waste his or her time.

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