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GP713 - BALAKIREV, M.A.: Piano Works (Complete), Vol. 2 (N. Walker)
Mili Alekseyevich Balakirev (1837–1910)
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. He neglected his own composing, however, some works existing for years only in his head as 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 the many administrative duties meant 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. A local landowner A.D. 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.
Waltz No. 1 in G major (Valse di bravura)
Balakirev’s first waltz dates from 1900, the first edition being dedicated to Liszt’s pupil, the renowned Eugen d’Albert. D’Albert, however, failed even to acknowledge Balakirev’s letter and so his name was removed from the second edition. As with Chopin’s Waltzes, Balakirev’s are typically in ternary form, often with an introduction, sometimes a brief cadenza-like passage, and certainly a coda in which a theme from the middle section comes back, often in a more virtuosic fashion. This waltz has all three elements and would have suited the playing of celebrated pianist Ricardo Viñes (1875–1943), who played this piece several times, admirably.
Nocturne No. 1 in B flat minor (revised version, 1898)
The majority of Balakirev’s compositions fall into four periods: the first pieces dating from his years in Nizhni Novgorod and Kazan’ (1850s); the transcription of Glinka’s song The Lark (1863–1864) and Islamey (1869); the works from the 1880s and those from the period of Balakirev’s final flowering. This nocturne (1898) is one of a handful of works that date from the mid to late 1890s. Balakirev’s admiration of Chopin is felt in the opening section, yet it somehow has a Russian turn of phrase and this is particularly apparent in the stormy, orchestral middle section. The ending foreshadows that of the Sonata in B flat minor (1905) (see Volume 1, GP636).
Waltz No. 2 in F minor (Valse mélancolique)
This waltz also dates from 1900. Here the waltz sets about its business without introduction, spinning a web of nostalgia, with a warm middle section in one of Balakirev’s favourite keys—D flat major—and a more passionate coda which, however, dies away gently. It was this waltz which Rosa Newmarch, writer on Russian and Slovak music, thought so graceful and seductive, when she heard Balakirev play one evening in May 1901 at the home of the critic V. V. Stasov.
Waltz No. 3 in D major (Valse-impromptu)
Balakirev’s third waltz (1901) appears at first glance to be simply a finely crafted salon piece. This is not to belittle it, since the highest achievements of nineteenth century cultural life were realised in a salon milieu. While the opening seems a little nervous and shy, the second theme has a strong folksong character. From his deep love of folksong Balakirev had learnt how to harmonize melodies to reveal the innate subtle changes of emotional nuance within even a short phrase, and his handling of tonality in this piece is quite sophisticated. The word ‘impromptu’ is perhaps appended to the title as the piece has a somewhat improvisatory air. Incidentally, in a letter written in 1904 to V.M. Tsaregradsky¹ Balakirev encourages him to include in his repertoire the 3rd and 6th Waltzes “as rather easy pieces, which might be popular among amateurs in Nizhni Novgorod”!
Nocturne No. 2 in B minor
The haunting first section of the second nocturne (1901) gives way to a splendid vision which, while it may remind one of Mussorgsky’s Great Gate of Kiev, is better conceived for the piano. This magnificent second theme has, perhaps, more in common with the sentiments behind Balakirev’s song Starless midnight coldly breathed (known as A Vision in English), a setting of a slavophile poem by Khomyakov in which the poet dreams of a solemn Orthodox service in Prague’s Roman Catholic cathedral.
Waltz No. 4 in B flat major (Valse de concert)
This waltz (1902) is truly a concert piece: its initial charm and innocence is in contrast to the darker middle section, which begins with a simple and very Russian-sounding tune but grows to a stormy climax of orchestral proportions; the whole work culminates in a brilliant coda. It is dedicated to his pupil, the pianist V.M. Tsaregradsky.
Nocturne No. 3 in D minor
The third nocturne dates from 1902 and is dedicated to Ekaterina Botkin, the wife of the artist (and philanthropist) M.P. Botkin, scion of the Moscow merchant family which made its fortune in trading tea. The character of this piece resembles a barcarolle: the gently swaying motion of the boat gives way to a more turbulent passage and on its return dies away in a haze of D major.
Waltz No. 5 in D flat major
Balakirev often expanded dance forms to almost symphonic proportions, and this is the case with this waltz, which is also one of the longest and dates from 1903. The introductory flourishes lead to an elegant dance, which is shortly followed by a cadenza-like passage, whose melodic character seems deeply Russian, even to the extent of the appearance of counterpoint somewhat reminiscent of Russian Orthodox church music. This tune becomes quite orchestral in character in the subsequent section. On its return the main theme acquires more and more decoration, leading to a brilliant coda, the climax of which is the Russian tune in full orchestral garb. The dedicatee of this waltz is Rosa Newmarch.
Nocturne in G sharp minor (1856, early version of Nocturne No. 1)
On the autograph of this little gem Balakirev notes that he finished it on his first day in St Petersburg—15th February, 1856. I am indebted to Tatiana Zaitseva of the St Petersburg Conservatory for introducing me to many of these early, unpublished works.
Fantasiestück in D flat major
The deeply felt and simple opening of this piece (1903) is somewhat reminiscent of Schumann, but the middle section, in which the excitement builds to a climax before evaporating in a harp-like cadenza, reminds one of Balakirev’s own Tarantella of the year before.
Waltz No. 6 in F sharp minor
Also dating from 1903, this waltz has a wistful character and at the start sounds almost French, reminiscent of early Debussy or Fauré. This effect seems to be created by the uncertain tonality at the start: are we in A major, F sharp minor or D major? The question is not resolved until the phrase which closes in F sharp minor in bar 16, after which we are again presented with the initial problem, though in decorated form. The middle section also floats from key to key engendering a rather ethereal effect. S.K. Bulich (1859–1921), the noted Russian ethnographer and writer about music, wrote to Balakirev on 7th December, 1903, saying of this waltz and the Humoresque: “you have managed to preserve till grey-haired such heartfelt warmth and freshness of feeling, such as one does not meet nowadays even in young people”.
Chant du Pêcheur in B minor
On 4th June, 1903, Balakirev wrote to his friend, S. M. Lyapunov (1859–1924) concerning his latest piano pieces, the Chant du Pêcheur and the Humoresque: “In them you can see only the experienced hand of an author, who would not give himself the trouble of working on them, if it were not necessary…” A simple guitarlike accompaniment supports a lonely melody of great beauty, while the more chromatic, oriental sounding, harmonies in certain phrases recall Balakirev’s own Song of the Golden Fish (1860).
Waltz No. 7 in G sharp minor
The seventh waltz (1906) is one of Balakirev’s last pieces. After an improvisatory introduction the main theme appears with a strong almost Gypsy character and some stamping accents that, combined with stirring pedal points and a vivid orchestral character, give this waltz an heroic or epic quality. The way in which the middle section is recalled in the coda is, to my mind, particularly exciting.
¹ Russian Music Journal, 9th October, no. 41
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