BALAKIREV: Symphony No. 2 / Russia (Edvard Shakhnazarian/ Igor Golovschin/ Russian State Symphony Orchestra) (Naxos: 8.550793)
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Mili Alexeyevich Balakirev (1837- 1910)
Symphony No.2 in D Minor
Balakirev occupies an important if equivocalposition in the history of Russian music of the later part of the nineteenthcentury. He was born in Nizhny-Novgorod in 1837 and had his first piano lessonsfrom his mother, who later arranged some lessons for him with AlexanderDubuque, a pupil of John Field. Through a later teacher, the German KarlEisrich, he was introduced to the circle of Alexander Ul?»b?»shev, anenthusiastic amateur, author of books on Mozart and Beethoven and owner of auseful music library. At Ul?»b?»shev's house he was able to hear chamber musicand occasionally orchestral works, the inspiration for his own earlycompositions. It was through the agency of this patron that Balakirev was ablein 1855 to travel to St. Petersburg, where he met Glinka and other well knownmusicians and made his own debut as a pianist and composer.
Supporting himself with difficulty by givingpiano lessons and private performances, Balakirev managed to survive in St.
Petersburg, where he met two young army officers, Cesar Cui and ModestMussorgsky, both keen amateur composers, over whom he began to exercise someinfluence. He had, at the same time, formed a friendship with Dmitry and VladimirStasov, the latter an important figure in the intellectual support of Russianmusical nationalism. In 1861 he met Rimsky-Korsakov and the following yearBorodin, completing the group of five Russian nationalists described byVladimir Stasov as the Mighty Handful, the Five who would follow Glinka'sexample in the creation of a distinctively Russian musical tradition. At thesame time Balakirev had increasing involvement with the Free School of Music inSt. Petersburg, set up in opposition to the 'German' Conservatory establishedby Anton Rubinstein, with the encouragement of the Grand Duchess ElenaPavlovna, who did her best to remove Balakirev from the conductorship of theRussian Music Society concerts, which were under her patronage. Balakirev's owncharacter, obstinate and tactless, did much to increase the division betweenthe Conservatory and his own followers, castigated by Anton Rubinstein asamateurs, a charge that could never have been levelled at him. Balakirev'slater relationship with Nikolai Rubinstein and the Moscow Conservatory, whereTchaikovsky taught, was more satisfactory, and it was Nikolai Rubinstein whointroduced the oriental fantasy for piano, Islamey, to the St. Petersburgpublic in 1869.
Religious conversion led to a briefretirement from musical life and from familiar society between 1871 and 1874,but gradually thereafter Balakirev resumed something of his old activities,particularly, in 1881, the direction of the Free School, which he hadsurrendered to Rimsky-Korsakov in 1874. In 1883 his friends found for him aposition as director of the Imperial Court Chapel, where he was assisted byRimsky-Korsakov. A breach with the latter came in 1890, as Belyayev, animportant patron and publisher of Russian music, gradually seemed to usurp hisplace as leader of the Russian nationalist composers. A measure of friendshipwas restored, to be destroyed completely and finally by Rimsky ?¡Korsakov'sbehaviour at the first performance of Balakirev's First Symphony at a FreeSchool Concert in 1898. Balakirev had retired from the Imperial Chapel in 1895and thereafter had devoted himself more fully to composition, to his continuingtask of editing the music of Glinka and to the encouragement of anew group ofyoung Russian composers, including his always loyal disciple Sergei Liapunov,who later orchestrated Islamey. Freedom from other activity allowed thecompletion of a symphony he had started many years before and the completion ofa second in 1908. In this final period of his life he attracted littleattention from the musical public and expressed some bitterness at the neglectof his work. Russian music, nevertheless, owed him a considerable debt.
Combative by temperament, he had fought for his own conception of truly Russianmusic, which found future expression in a synthesis of the technique of theConservatories and the spirit that he had engendered and nurtured.
Balakirev worked on the second of his twosymphonies between 1900 and 1908 and it was first performed at a Free Schoolconcert in April 1909 under the direction of Liapunov. Work on his firstsymphony had been resumed thirty years after the first sketches, with no traceof a change of style. Similarly the second symphony, which makes use of theScherzo planned in the 1860s for the earlier work, is in a style that hadpassed. This, after all, was the age of Stravinsky's Firebird. It is,nevertheless, a compelling enough work, testimony to Balakirev's craftsmanshipand to the Russian source of his inspiration. The first movement opens with twostrong chords, followed by the first subject, entrusted to the cellos andclarinet. This D minor principal theme leads to a D flat major second subject.
There is a brief development and a recapitulation that allows the secondsubject to appear, very properly, in D major. The B minor Cossack Scherzo isvigorous and thoroughly Russian, worked out in tripartite sonata form, with asecond subject and a development that includes further treatment of the firstsubject in imitative canon. The Trio is based on a Russian folk-song, The Snow Melts, a melody that re-appearsin the repeated Scherzo in place of the now expected sonata-form secondsubject. The slow movement Romanza provides expressive relaxation of tension,to be followed by a final Polonaise, with a Russian folk-song second subjectand reminiscences of the Romanza, an energetic movement, where this return tothe romantic seems occasionally out of place.
The symphonic poem Rus, the ancient name of Russia, wasoriginally planned as a four movement work. This scheme was rejected in favourof a second Overture on Russian Themes, which was first performed at a FreeSchool concert in Apri11864. The publisher Johansen issued the work, nowrevised, in 1869, under the title Musical Picture, 1000 Years. In the 1880sBalakirev revised the work again, giving it the title Rus. Three Russian themes are used. Thework is introduced by a wedding-song, It WasNot The Wind, a Larghetto opening. This B flat minor melody isfollowed by an Allegro moderato D major, the song I'll Go Up, statedfirst by clarinets and bassoons. The return of the first theme is followed bythe third folk-song, Jolly Katya In TheFields, and a fourth, apparently from the Caucasus, played by theclarinet with harp accompaniment. The material is developed, use being made ofthe first three themes. The fourth theme leads to the return of the first song,as it was originally heard, with a conclusion that makes brief and subtlereference to the second theme. Rus
belongs to a period in Balakirev's creative career when such complete relianceon folk material seemed a possible course to pursue. In the symphonies thisattitude has been modified.
Russian State Symphony Orchestra
The Russian State Symphony Orchestra wasfounded in 1936 and was initially under the direction of Alexander Gauk,succeeded in 1941 by Natan Rahlin, followed, in 1945, by Konstantin Ivanov.
Since 1965 the conductor has been Evgeny Svetlanov, with Igor Golovchin as thepresent Assistant Conductor. The orchestra has toured throughout the world,with a repertoire that includes Russian classical and contemporary works, fromGlinka to Shostakovich, Khachaturian and Sviridov.
The Russian conductor Igor Golovschin wasborn in Moscow in 1956 and entered the piano class of the Special Music Schoolat the age of s