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GP636 - BALAKIREV, M.A.: Piano Works (Complete), Vol. 1 (N. Walker)
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Mili Alekseyevich Balakirev (1837–1910)
Complete Piano Works • 1
Piano Sonatas


A brilliant pianist, improviser, noted conductor and selfless champion of other composers, Balakirev is surprisingly little known today. Yet as leader of the Russian composers known as ‘The Mighty Handful’, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Borodin and Cui, he strongly influenced not only their work but also that of Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky, setting the standard by which others were judged. For a variety of reasons, however, he neglected his own composing, some works existing for years only in his head as unwritten piano improvisations. In the 1870s he worked as a clerk for the Warsaw Railway, after suffering a number of setbacks which resulted in a deep depression; in 1883 he was appointed to the post of director of the Imperial Chapel Choir, but it came with many administrative duties so that by the time of his final creative flowering (1900–1910) many of his earlier champions had died, and Balakirev himself no longer appeared in public as a pianist. By the time he could devote himself to composition, his style was no longer at the cutting edge, and most of his output fell into obscurity almost as soon as it was written.

Balakirev was born in Nizhni Novgorod. His family was not wealthy, but a local landowner AD. Ulybyshev encouraged Balakirev’s musical education, even though he chose to study Mathematics at the University of Kazan owing to his family’s poverty. He dropped out after one year, but in 1855 Ulybyshev took him to St Petersburg, introducing him to the highest circles and enabling Balakirev to start his musical career. In addition to a large output of piano music and songs, Balakirev wrote two symphonies, several symphonic poems, works for piano and orchestra, choral music and incidental music for Shakespeare’s King Lear.

One of Balakirev’s earliest compositional plans was for a Russian symphony, exploring the concept of Rus in her geographical, poetical and political aspects. As Tatiana Zaitseva details in her Sources (Kanon, St Petersburg, 2000, p 71), this was to have had four movements:

1a) Rus (Adagio, B flat minor, 5/4)—valleys, the meandering Volga, boundless plains scattered with small groups of original pagan inhabitants.

1b) Allegro (D major)—Novgorod “freemen”, “veche” bell summoning people to the assembly of Novgorod.

2) Allegro (Scherzo)—Russian mythology, goblins, grotesque forest creatures and Baba Yaga.

3) Adagio—moonlit night, fairy garden, golden apples and the Firebird in a golden cage.

4) Allegretto maestoso (B flat major, 12/8)—strength, speech of Kuz’ma Minin in Nizhni Novgorod (the Nizhni Novogorod merchant who, with Prince Dmitry Pozharsky, is famous for his rôle in defending Russia against Polish invasion), bells ringing out, celebrations, the expression of Russian national strength and energy.

Balakirev never wrote the symphony, but interestingly these ideas recur in the works of his pupils, compatriots and descendants. Such a massive task would have been beyond a mere youth, but elements of the plan survive, in particular in the sonatas.

In setting out to write a quintessentially Russian sonata—not a mere re-hash of the great Germanic models—Balakirev as a young man took on a huge challenge. In all three sonatas the challenge is met differently, but in the 1905 sonata what emerges is something quite unique.

The Sonata in B flat minor of 1905 encapsulates all three Balakirev sonatas, beginning life in 1855 as the Grande Sonate, Op 3, subsequently becoming in 1856 the 1ère Sonate, Op 5; all three share the same key. This lengthy gestation was owing to Balakirev’s fervent desire to create something that would express the entire history of Russia—her peoples, landscape and culture. After 1856 Balakirev laid aside the project and only resumed it in 1900. The new and entirely different version was completed in 1905 and dedicated to his pupil, the pianist and composer SM Lyapunov.

The first movement is a very original combination of fugue and sonata form, the principal theme evoking deepest Rus. Detail is piled upon detail in an almost medieval fashion, inspired perhaps by Orthodox Christianity—think of mosaics and iconostases! The brilliant mazurka which follows dates from 1900, and is a complete recomposition of the mazurkas of 1855–1856. Here the music assumes an operatic scale, redolent of a crowd scene in great Russian opera. A contemplative Intermezzo leads into the Finale, a movement of incredible energy reminiscent of a Ukrainian gopak, in which the Intermezzo makes a brief reappearance. The movement dies away peacefully in a most striking manner, rather as Russia herself stretches endlessly eastwards through steppe, taiga and forest.

This B flat minor Sonata is surely the most original, wholly Russian, structurally successful and moving of all Russian sonatas, comparable with that of Liszt. Its infrequent performance on the concert platform perhaps owes as much to its quiet ending as to the enormous technical challenges it poses for the performer.

The manuscript of Sonata in B flat minor, Op 5, is, in contrast to that of Op 3, very neat. It was written between 23 and 26 March 1856. There is no title page, and at the bottom of the first page is a pencilled addition, “I dedicate this to my beloved friend César Antonovich Cui”, followed by Balakirev’s signature. Interestingly, he calls this his first sonata. Evidently he did not intend to finish the Op 3 Sonata, but a young, aspiring composer in St Petersburg needed to have a sonata in his portfolio.

The first movement opens with a solemn, rather operatic introduction to a stormy Allegro assai, feroce, the second subject of which started life as a sketch for a completely different work. The second movement is an earlier version of the Mazurka from the 1905 Sonata, and is itself a subtly altered version of the Mazurka from the Sonata, Op 3. The difference of scale of the earlier versions compared with the mature 1900 version will be immediately apparent. The last movement is, like the slow movement of the Sonata, Op 3, in G flat major, and has something of the same atmosphere. The opening theme is similar to the middle section of the unpublished Nocturne in G sharp minor, written on 15 February 1856. After such a touching movement one longs for a finale, but Balakirev laid aside his sonata project for the next 34 years.

Balakirev wrote his Grande Sonate, Op 3 from 20 March to 4 August 1855, when he was still in Kazan. Dedicated to Glinka, whom Balakirev greatly admired, it is an enormous work of five movements, the last uncompleted. The title page is inscribed with an epigraph taken from Lermontov:

“In my soul, as in the ocean,
Lies a cargo of fractured hopes.”

The first movement’s grand heroic style demands the utmost in stamina and virtuosity from the performer. It is constructed from two themes. Remarks regarding the character of the music as well as place and time of composition are pencilled in the score, and it is clear that long stretches of the sonata were written at one sitting, probably away from the piano.

The choice of a Mazurka for a second movement, rather than the customary Scherzo, shows Balakirev, even at the age of eighteen, setting out to write something truly Russian. Highly virtuosic, it sparkles with national character. The third movement has “Cherubim” written at the top of the page, and begins with an almost Bruckneresque hymn. At the end of the first section, Balakirev writes, “With this I am very satisfied”, adding, “I don’t know what will come next / The night of 19 March”. Begun on 31 March, the fourth movement shows the most corrections: at one point a fugue starts, but is crossed out. The music has terrific drive and energy, although it was not finished until August. It concludes by recalling elements from the first and third movements, suggesting that the ensuing fugal epilogue, whose opening subject is the mazurka tune, might have combined music from all four movements. Unfortunately only 22 bars of the movement were written, giving a tantalising glimpse of what promised to be a fugue of Busoniesque complexity.

Nicholas Walker

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