One of my favourite Russian composers is Anatoly Lyadov (or Liadov), 1855-1914. He was a fascinating character, punctilious yet lazy. As a result of that laziness, there aren't a large amount of works from Lyadov but, as a result of that punctiliousness, his small output contains a number of the most exquisite works ever written. There's a familiar story, which may or may not be true, that Lyadov was originally commissioned to compose The Firebird for Diaghilev but was so slow in writing the score that the task was given instead to Stravinsky - and the rest is history (or so the story goes). If Lyadov had written a ballet, I suspect it would have been a very special one.
His music grew out of the Russian Nationalist school, with his earlier works exhibiting a good deal of Russian folk-song influence. A particular fine example of his early style is the Ballade ('About Olden Times'). The main theme of its gorgeous introduction is a jewel, having a first half that is pentatonic and a second half featuring two very Russian-sounding falling fourths. Even at this stage in his composing life, Lyadov's scoring is an absolute delight, making highly original use of piano and harp. The extrovert fast section also features a folk-song-style main theme and uses percussion to give it yet more colour.
As he matured, Rimsky-Korsakov's influence (as it also matured) became stronger, with all that entails in the ability to use an orchestra to veil fairy tales in mystery.
Kikimora is a great piece of music. It's one of several short tone poems Lyadov wrote based on Russian folk stories, this one telling of a malevolent creature who spins all day long. The opening section carries us into this world of wicked magic, with its dark orchestral colours, its beautiful folk-like melody on cor anglais and its hypnotically rocking rhythms (said to depict the cradle in which Kikimora grew up over seven long years). The second section shows the grown-up monster going about her evil ways and is a classic musical portrait of grotesquery.
Another frightening figure from Russian folklore, the witch Baba Yaga, is the subject of another of Lyadov's great little tone poems. Baba Yaga is another classical musical portrait of grotesquery, as she takes to the air on her broomstick.
My favourite Lyadov work though is The Enchanted Lake. Its music shimmers mystically. The music evokes what its title says it evokes, with stars shining down on the magical waters. For the conjuring of atmosphere, this piece is in a league of its own. The orchestral writing here is of a level of genius that can be compared to the Debussy of La Mer - which is a compliment I hope you'll agree is fully deserved. The waters gently lap, the harmonies quiver, as woodwinds weave spells in the air and celesta and harp glimmer like reflected stars. The opening, with its gentle trills, will surely have you spellbound from the start. There is a little more animated activity in the central pages of the score, perhaps suggesting a mortal passing through the scene, but the enchantment of the opening returns to close the piece.
Almost as magical but very different in mood is From the Apocalypse. Its opening pages, after a thunderous start, are enchanting, shimmering with mystery and the greatest delicacy, moving through captivating harmonies to a mighty tamtam battered climax. The hints of matter apocalyptic in the opening bars are temporarily held at bay by a magically-scored (and re-scored) Orthodox chant. This is fabulous music. What comes next? The music then mounts the pale rider and the movement unleashes dark magic, full of fanfares and dramatic action, in a stormy development section. Presumably the brass play the part of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse here. At the climax of this section, the chant theme returns in glory. There's no recapitulation, only a rumble of drums - a completely unexpected ending, very imaginative and right-sounding.
Lyadov also wrote some charming piano miniatures. The best-known of these is his 'waltz-joke' Musical Snuff-Box, which is almost entirely played in the upper half of the keyboard and makes a charming toy-like sound, especially as it winds down. From its artful play of rhythms, you could easily imagine the composer writing for the ballet, so again it's a shame he didn't! (An orchestration of the piece can be heard here.) Also well worth listening to is his Barcarolle, whose title betrays the influence of Chopin - though it's a relaxed take on the soundworld of Chopin that we get from the composer. When we get to late Lyadov, however, as in the Four Pieces Op.64, we very clearly enter the harmonically daring, esoteric soundworld of Scriabin.
If only Lyadov hadn't been such an Oblomov-like character, how many other such original gems might he have composed?