BALAKIREV: Symphony No. 1 / Islamey / Tamara (Edvard Shakhnazarian/ Igor Golovschin/ Russian State Symphony Orchestra) (Naxos: 8.550792)
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Mili Alexeyevich Balakirev (1837 -1910)
Symphony No.1 in C Major
Islamey (orch. Liapunov)
Balakirev occupies an important if equivocal position in the history ofRussian music of the later part of the nineteenth century. He was born inNizhny-Novgorod in 1837 and had his first piano lessons from his mother, wholater arranged some lessons for him with Alexander Dubuque, a pupil of JohnField. Through a later teacher, the German Karl Eisrich, he was introduced tothe circle of Alexander Ul?»b?»shev, an enthusiastic amateur, author of books onMozart and Beethoven and owner of a useful music library. At Ul?»b?»shev's househe was able to hear chamber music and occasionally orchestral works, theinspiration for his own early compositions. It was through the agency of thispatron that Balakirev was able in 1855 to travel to St. Petersburg, where hemet Glinka and other well known musicians and made his own debut as a pianistand composer.
Supporting himself with difficulty by giving piano lessons and privateperformances, Balakirev managed to survive in St. Petersburg, where he met twoyoung army officers, Cesar Cui and Modest Mussorgsky, both keen amateurcomposers, over whom he began to exercise some influence. He had, at the sametime, formed a friendship with Dmitry and Vladimir Stasov, the latter animportant figure in the intellectual support of Russian musical nationalism. In1861 he met Rimsky-Korsakov and the following year Borodin, completing thegroup of five Russian nationalists described by Vladimir Stasov as the MightyHandful, the Five who would follow Glinka's example in the creation of adistinctively Russian musical tradition. At the same time Balakirev hadincreasing involvement with the Free School of Music in St. Petersburg, set upin opposition to the 'German' Conservatory established by Anton Rubinstein,with the encouragement of the Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna, who did her best toremove Balakirev from the conductorship of the Russian Music Society concerts,which were under her patronage. Balakirev's own character, obstinate andtactless, did much to increase the division between the Conservatory and hisown followers, castigated by Anton Rubinstein as amateurs, a charge that couldnever have been levelled at him. Balakirev's later relationship with NikolaiRubinstein and the Moscow Conservatory, where Tchaikovsky taught, was moresatisfactory, and it was Nikolai Rubinstein who introduced the oriental fantasyfor piano, Islamey, to the St. Petersburg public in 1869.
Religious conversion led to a brief retirement from musical life andfrom familiar society between 1871 and 1874, but gradually thereafter Balakirevresumed something of his old activities, particularly, in 1881, the directionof the Free School, which he had surrendered to Rimsky-Korsakov in 1874. In1883 his friends found for him a position as director of the Imperial CourtChapel, where he was assisted by Rimsky-Korsakov. A breach with the latter camein 1890, as Belyayev, an important patron and publisher of Russian music,gradually seemed to usurp his place as leader of the Russian nationalistcomposers. A measure of friendship was restored, to be destroyed completely andfinally by Rimsky-Korsakov's behaviour at the first performance of Balakirev'sFirst Symphony at a Free School Concert in 1898. Balakirev had retired from theImperial Chapel in 1895 and thereafter had devoted himself more fully tocomposition, to his continuing task of editing the music of Glinka and to theencouragement of a new group of young Russian composers, including his alwaysloyal disciple Sergei Liapunov, who later orchestrated Islamey. Freedom fromother activity allowed the completion of a symphony he had started many yearsbefore and the completion of a second in 1908. In this final period of his lifehe attracted little attention from the musical public and expressed somebitterness at the neglect of his work. Russian music, nevertheless, owed him aconsiderable debt. Combative by temperament, he had fought for his ownconception of truly Russian music, which found future expression in a synthesisof the technique of the Conservatories and the spirit that he had engenderedand nurtured.
Balakirev started his first symphony in 1864, a year after his firstappearance as a conductor. According to Rimsky-Korsakov, by 1866 Balakirev hadwritten down a third of the first movement, with sketches for a scherzo and afinale on Russian themes, the songs Sharlatarla from Partarla and We sowed themillet. The sketches for the scherzo were later used in the second symphony.
Balakirev resumed work on the first symphony in the 1890s, finishing it inDecember 1897. An arrangement for piano duet was played by the composer andLiapunov to a few invited guests, including Rimsky-Korsakov, Glazunov and the Stasovs,and was received on that occasion without enthusiasm. It has since won a warmerwelcome.
The symphony is scored for three flutes, two oboes, cor anglais, threeclarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, threetimpani, triangle, cymbals and bass drum, harp and strings. The first movementopens with a slow introduction, the source of the rest of the movement, thefirst subject is derived from the first two bars, while the second subject isderived from a phrase played by flute and violas starting in the fifth bar.
There is, in an accompanying figure in the second violins, the suggestion of ascene from Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov. The first subject is announced by thefull orchestra at the start of the Allegro vivo, a theme later augmented by thebrass, before the entry of the second subject, which is immediately developed.
Balakirev's technical competence is apparent in the subtle re-appearance of thefirst subject, leading to a subsidiary second subject, before the centralsection where further development continues, with here and in the third sectionof the movement, considerable use of augmentation, the theme now played instill longer note-values. The A minor Scherzo adds a Russian dimension toMendelssohn, with an expressively melancholy D minor Trio, the principal themeof which appears again in the final coda to the movement. The whispered end ofthe Scherzo leads to a D fiat major slow movement. Here the clarinet has theprincipal theme, accompanied by strings and harp and leading the way to an Emajor subsidiary theme in a prolonged exploration of the possibilities ofsonata-rondo form, unusual in a slow movement. The harp, in a series of scales,prepares the necessary change of key for the C major Finale, which beginswithout a break. Here cellos and double basses announce a Russian theme, thefirst subject, followed by a D major second subject from the clarinet, incompound rhythm, a theme that Balakirev had heard sung by a blind beggar. Athird, asymmetric theme is introduced by the cellos, adding to the thematicmaterial of a movement that ends in a vigorous Tempo di polacca.
The oriental fantasy Islamey was written in 1869 and revised in 1902.
It remains, in its original piano version, the best known of Balakirev'scompositions, the only one to bring profit to his publishers, its exoticismmatched in Liapunov's orchestral version. The fantasy is based on three themes,the first known as Islamey and heard by the composer on a visit to theCaucasus. The second theme is lively in rhythm, and these two themes lead tothe expressive third theme, which the composer had heard sung by the Armenianbaritone Konstantin de Lazari at Tchaikovsky's house in the summer of 1869.
This theme later emerges in more energetic guise, as the material is developed.
The symphonic poem Tamara is based on a poem by Lermontov. The evil andbeautiful Princess Tamara li