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Jerry Dubins
Fanfare, July 2009

Naming the seven dwarfs, Santa’s eight reindeer, or the nine justices on the Supreme Court may pose less of a challenge for some than naming the half-dozen French composers associated with the group known as “Les Six” or the quintet of Russian composers who united under the banner of “The Mighty Handful.” If you’re stumped as to the latter, let me help you out. They were, alphabetically, Mily Balakirev, Alexander Borodin, César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

Even if you already knew that, you might not have known that Balakirev (1837–1910) was both initiator and leader of the group, and that its founding principles were formulated by the influential Russian literary critic, Vladimir Stasov, who believed Russian art needed to liberate itself from European influences by reasserting its own native traditions. Balakirev may have seemed an improbable candidate for the job of reformer. His first teachers fed him a diet of Mozart, Beethoven, and Chopin. It wasn’t until Balakirev met Glinka in 1855 that the aspiring young composer’s nationalist spirit was ignited. Glinka recognized Balakirev’s budding talent and made an effort to nurture it. It was at this time (1856) that Balakirev completed his opus 1, the Piano Concerto No. 1 in F♯ Minor on this disc.

You’d be hard-pressed to cite anything particularly Russian about this work. It’s a glittering, glitzy showpiece in the grand Romantic concerto tradition, which at any moment sounds like it’s about to lapse into Chopin. Listen, for example, beginning at 4:40 in the first movement to the turn of phrase that is lifted right out of Chopin’s E-Minor Piano Concerto. But the kid was only 19 at the time; a composer’s mature style is most often forged by copying and imitating extant models. Anastasia Seifetdinova serves up the Concerto’s many moments of tender lyricism with great delicacy and grace, while yielding nothing to the dramatic episodes or virtuosic display. Perhaps she doesn’t deliver quite the high octane explosive power of Malcom Binns in his recording on Volume 5 of Hyperion’s “The Romantic Piano Concerto” collection, but for all its pyrotechnics, the piece is still closer to the lyric domain of Chopin and Saint-Saëns than it is to some of the bigger, more ambitious undertakings by Tchaikovsky, Arensky, Medtner, and Rachmaninoff. In that regard, I think I marginally prefer Seifetdinova’s lighter touch and more classically poised performance to that of Binns.

The Second Concerto in E♭ Major was begun only five years later, but Balakirev lost interest in it after completing the first movement, and set the work aside. Nearly 40 years later, in 1906, he picked it up again, adding a second movement, and sketching out part of a last movement. But once again he abandoned the project, leaving it to be completed by Sergey Liapunov. In this second concerto we now have a bigger-boned work, infused with some Russian sounding themes that occasionally reminded me of Borodin in “Polovtsian Dances” mode and Rimsky-Korsakov in Russian Easter Overture mode. But Balakirev is very much his own man, a fact of which one is made aware approximately halfway through the first movement with the arrival of a rather queer-sounding fugue set to a march-like subject. And the Adagio written so many years later is a movement of emotionally transcendent beauty that Rachmaninoff would have been proud to call his own. Binns, too, plays this Concerto on the same “Romantic Piano Concerto” series volume; and in this case my preference is reversed. Comparing the two versions, I think Binns is a bit more successful in capturing the rather quixotic nature of the Second Concerto.

That leaves one’s preference, I suppose, for the fillers to settle the case in favor of one or the other. Binns includes Rimsky-Korsakov’s C♯-Minor Piano Concerto, which it seems a bit indecorous to call “filler,” considering it’s longer by over a minute than Balakirev’s F♯-Minor Concerto. Seifetdinova gives us Balakirev’s Grand Fantasia on Russian Folksongs, which is an even more substantial, though not a more substantive, work than either the Rimsky-Korsakov or Balakirev’s First Concerto. Its opus number is misleading, for it actually predates the F♯-Minor Concerto, having been written in 1852 by a post-pubescent 15-year-old. Based on actual Russian folk tunes, the piece is quite a tour de force, considering the age of its composer. Cliché ridden in much of its keyboard figuration and rather static in developing its materials, still, it’s just so pretty, I wouldn’t want to be without it.

Obviously, if you’ve been collecting the entire Hyperion “Romantic Piano Concerto” series, you must already have Binns’s Volume 5, which came out, if you can believe it, as long ago as 1992; but at Naxos’s budget price, this 2006 recording is worth the duplication, and the Grand Fantasia will steal your heart and take your breath away. It’s really gorgeous, and it makes you wonder why Balakirev was overshadowed by Mussorgsky, Borodin, and Rimsky-Korsakov. Of the “Mighty Handful,” only César Cui is less appreciated than Balakirev is.

Colin Clarke
MusicWeb International, May 2009

Elegance meets bravura in Balakirev’s fluent, fluid, one-movement First Piano Concerto. Both of these qualities flower out of the work’s dark, brooding opening. The influence of Chopin and Field is immediately obvious in the piano writing. There is some lovely orchestral playing in this performance. Try the lyrical clarinet solo just after the two-minute mark, after which woodwind work as a chamber-music unit in their responses. The ensuing wind-down echoes how Chopin introduces the solo piano in his First Piano Concerto. Chopin’s influence is obvious almost everywhere, from active right-hand figuration to the Nocturne-like contrastive subjects. The way Seifetdinova darkens the landscape when appropriate to do so is most appealing and reveals a musician of much sensitivity. Her pedalling is well thought through, and her touch is nicely varied.

The Russian Philharmonic plays extremely well and the accompaniment is excellently delivered…

The Second Concerto was begun in 1861 but Balakirev lost interest in it, and only added the second movement in 1906. The finale was completed and orchestrated by Lyapunov. Interestingly, Seifetdinova and Yablonsky find more whispered intimacy in the first movement than they did in the First Concerto. That said, the imitative passage around eight minutes in sounds rather stilted and the musical argument of the first movement rather diffuse. The main theme of the Adagio is taken from the Russian Orthodox Requiem, a theme which dominates the movement until its very close, where it is replaced by a thematic recollection of the first movement…

The Grande Fantaisie on Russian Folksongs—discussed first in the booklet notes, heard last on the disc—was written whilst Balakirev was still a largely self-taught teenager (aged 14). He uses two folksongs for his material as his basis. Much of the piano part is glittering and the work is attractive on the surface but there are long passages of padding. The duration, at nearly twenty minutes, is clearly too long. Seifetdinova does her best and produces some simply magical sounds. In fact Ukrainian-born Anastasia Seifetdinova is everywhere superb. We are not given her age, but if the photo in the booklet is an accurate representation of her at present, she is still very young, which bodes very well indeed. Seifetdinova studied with Oxana Yablonskaya and is currently pursuing a doctorate at Hartford.

Steven J Haller
American Record Guide, May 2009

The Second Concerto was left unfinished on the composer’s death—only the first two movements were in score—so his close friend Sergei Liapounov stepped in and completed the finale, recalling how Balakirev extemporized his themes to his circle, much as Glazounov was able to miraculously recreate the overture to Prince Igor merely from hearing Borodin play it on the piano.

Rounding out the program is the Grande Fantaisie on Russian Folk Songs—written even earlier than the “juvenile concerto”…In many ways the Fantasy is the most interesting of the three pieces, not least as the remarkable product of a 15-year-old music student who (as the notes remind us) “had largely taught himself the rudiments of composition and had only his ear and recollection of scores and previously heard works to guide him”. It’s based on two folk songs, ‘The sun is not eclipsed’ and ‘Down in the vale’, not developed melodically or harmonically but rather stated simply against a relatively modest orchestral backdrop. The soloist clearly holds the floor, often in the face of substantial challenges—it is not a piece for beginners—before all ends serenely. Anastasia Seifetdinova caresses the keys with a pearly touch, at first sounding a bit recessed; with the string of variations that follows, she becomes considerably more forceful…Of course the main event is the concertos. Certainly the First Concerto, both in its yearning quality and its bardic solo writing, seems the very essence of Balakirev’s beloved Chopin. Even more extraordinary is the finale of the Second Concerto; it sounds for all the world like the ‘Dance of Terror’ from El Amor Brujo (Falla), written five years after Balakirev’s death—how much of this is Balakirev and how much is Liapounov, one wonders?

In the early “concerto movement” Seifetdinova seems far more caught up in the Chopinesque reverie than the prevailing darkly Slavic sentiment; yet even here passions seem muted next to Howard Shelley’s lushly romanticized treatment…In the Second Concerto…Seifetdinova and Yablonsky clearly see the opening movement as forged on a grand scale, expansive and building inexorably with dark, brooding colors and heroic onslaughts by the low brass that might be pronouncements by some mighty boyar…In the Adagio, based on a chant from the Russian Orthodox Requiem…Seifetdinova makes a powerful statement set against the sonorous brass. Most of all I enjoyed her earthy stomp in the finale…ratchets it up in exuberant fashion, and the Russian trombones under Yablonsky just about blow the roof off the hall—they really had me on the edge of my chair…Seifetdinova’s massive treatment won me over, and this new Naxos is the one I’ll be listening to again.

John Sunier
Audiophile Audition, March 2009

Rimsky-Korsakov praised Mily Alexeyevich Balakirev as being an excellent pianist. The two piano concertos of the conservative composer who lived until 1910 are colorful and tuneful works which partake of similar rich orchestrations to the music of Rimsky-Korsakov. No. 2 had to be completed by another Russian composer, Sergey Lyapunov. Balakirev was not only a pianist and composer but also a conductor, teacher and mentor to many of the Russian composers. He was only a few years older than both Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky, and had a major influence on Russian music in general.

The short First Concerto echoes the music of Chopin in some sections; interesting to note that Balakirev dropped out of music for some years and worked for the Warsaw Railway.  The considerably longer Second Concerto uses as a theme in its Adagio movement a chant from the Russian Orthodox Requiem. Exuberant bell-like patterns distinguish the third and final movement.  The Grande Fantaisie draws on two Russian folk songs and is part of a long tradition of such nationalist works, which began before the Revolution.  Sonics are fine—we don’t need to accept poor sound to enjoy more unusual Russian music as was true during the Soviet era.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, February 2009

The name of Mily Alexeyevich Balakirev is now only in the concert repertoire by virtue of his virtuoso piano showpiece, Islamey, and the occasional performance of the orchestral tone-poem, Tamara. Yet he was the linchpin that influenced so much in the development of Russian nationalism that emanated from his contemporaries, Tchaikovsky, Borodin, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. Yet so preoccupied in his work as a teacher—he was co-founder of the Free School of Music—it was only in his latter years that he concentrated on composition. That came, with considerable irony, at a time when the style of composing had been radically changed by those he had nurtured, and he was looked upon as outdated. Even his supporters would have to confess that only intermittently did he find memorable thematic material and that is true of his two piano concertos. The First, short and in one movement, was completed when he was nineteen and still considering a career as a concert pianist. The Second was never finished, seemingly through a loss of interest, but fortunately he had extemporised the work sufficiently to friends that after his death the composer, Sergey Lyapunov, could complete the score. It certainly has many arresting moments, though in no short measure it is Lyapunov’s orchestration of the finale that is the score’s major attraction. The Grande Fantaisie on Russian Folksongs is delightful though for concert performances it has the problem of a quiet ending. Again a student score, it has the solo role dancing with much charm around the delicate orchestral accompaniment. The young Ukrainian pianist, Anastasia Seifetdinova, is the commendable soloist who plays with glittering dexterity in the brilliance of the Grande Fantaisie, while the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra, under Dmitry Yablonsky, is admirable, the recording offering much inner detail. At this very low price it’s time for you to do a little experimenting.

Giv Cornfield
The New Recordings, Cliffs Classics, February 2009

Back in the early days of LP, recordings of this kind of musical fare was very much in fashion, and a safe buy: even if the music was unknown, the composers were established ones who could be ‘trusted’. The Op. 1 Concerto—in spite of its brevity (just over 14 minutes)—does not disappoint, while the second (in E Flat, Op.4), apparently left unfinished and completed by Sergei Lyapunov, is equally pleasing if somewhat over-long at nearly 37 minutes. One would have expected some lively and familiar folk music from the ‘Grand Fantaisie on Russian Folksongs’, but that turns out to be a slow-moving disappointment. The playing by both soloist and orchestra are beyond cavil.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group