Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Balakirev at the piano

With Mily Balakirev we have a composer who drew on the consciously Russian innovations of Glinka but also took inspiration from Berlioz (orchestration, structure of his overtures) and Liszt (the symphonic poem, as well as the mainstream German tradition of Beethoven and Schumann. He loved folk music, especially that of his own country, and fed that into the mix too. That much is already apparent from my previous post. 

When we come to the piano works, however, another key influence emerges - Chopin. You can hear nocturnes, waltzes, scherzos and mazurkas dotted throughout his musical life and the style of Chopin is particularly obvious when you listen to his teenage First Piano Concerto in F sharp minor. (Compare the piece with Chopin's own First Piano Concerto in E minor to hear the influence most clearly). Being a virtuoso pianist himself, writing for the piano came naturally to him and the concerto certainly has plenty of dash. It's in a single movement and mixes brilliance with a Chopinesque vein of bel-canto-style poetry (especially in the second subject, introduced by a solo clarinet) that is enjoyable to hear. 

When we come to Balakirev's Second Piano Concerto in E flat major, on which the composer worked for nigh on fifty years before leaving it to Liapunov to complete, we find the Chopin influence still there but transmuted into something that sometimes doesn't sound too far from the spirit of Saint-Saëns but also inhabits a warm Russian soundworld. This is an endearing work that sings, dances and sparkles. Its material is diverse and memorable with short, lyrical themes dominating the opening movement, a Russian chant-like melody the second and Russian folk-like material the Finale. The balance between soloist in orchestra, as you'd expect from a composer with Balakirev's ear for orchestration, is gratefully weighted. The opening movement begins with an attention-grabbing theme that acts as the work's 'cyclical theme', returning in each of the other movements, albeit discreetly. This first movement makes a lot of one short theme. The second movement's theme might not sound out of place in Boris Godunov. The atmosphere here is a charming mix of Russian religious melancholy and Parisian elegance. I particularly enjoy the stirring climactic return of the chant-like theme, with full Rachmaninov-like chords from the soloist supporting the orchestra's grand statement of the melody. Also pleasing is the coda - a delicate series of 'Amens', each for the separate orchestral groupings, very prettily answered by the piano. A tremolo, a recall of the 'cyclical theme' and a fragment of the chant theme leads straight into the brilliant Finale, whose main theme spins swiftly between two harmonies, as if often the case with folktunes. This sort of writing looks ahead to composers like Khatchaturian. The second subject is a lyrical melody of the 'Central Asian' type Glinka and Balakirev himself made central to Russian Romantic music (albeit quite a lively one!). There's a fugue in the development section (again, not atypical in Russian music) though the tone throughout is amiably light. Audiences would love this concerto if it got regular performances. 

If the piano concertos aren't well known outside Russia, there is a work for solo piano that is - his 'oriental fantasy' Islamey. This is widely considered to be one of the toughest pieces to play in the entire piano repertoire. Ravel wrote his Scarbo in reaction to it. (He wanted to write something even more difficult!). It is a swashbuckling tour-de-force full of whirling rhythms and lyrical repose, boasting two wonderful folk-inspired Caucasian melodies. The outer sections spin continuous variations on their tune while the central passage brings us romantic dreams from Russia's exotic South.  It is one of the great Russian classics. (The Italian composer Alfredo Casella's orchestration came be heard here.)

Among the other miniatures for piano, I'd like to begin by recommending La fileuse ('The Spinner'). It's a charming if virtuoso piece whose constant figuration evokes the motion of the girl's spinning wheel. There are two tunes to enjoy. For the more introspective side of Balakirev's piano writing, please try the lovely Nocturne No.2 in B minor. Yes, there's certainly a flavour of Chopin there, as there is in the  Polka in F sharp minor - though both are far from being pale imitations. The Polka turns delightfully 'Central Asian' midway. The more piano music you hear by Balakirev the more you realise you've stumbled into a hidden treasure-house of mid-Romantic keyboard writing. You might also like to try his three superb Scherzos for a further sense of the composer's range: The first is a teenage work and very much in the dramatic style of Chopin; the second is another masterpiece (written much later), very original and characteristic; and the third is almost its equal.

And if you want range...Not as famous as Islamey but widely considered to be another of Balakirev's masterpieces is the Piano Sonata in B flat minor, a highly original piece whose opening movement is a unique fusion of fugal and free writing, oriental, ornamental and rather melancholy in character. A lively and charming Mazurka comes second, providing a necessary contrast of mood before Russian melancholy flows back in with the lovely, inward-looking third movement Intermezzo (shades of Schumann there) and the dizzying Finale. As you'd expect, there's a folk flavour to many of Balakirev's themes. Yes, some of the technical aspects of the sonata clearly owe a lot to Liszt, but this is pure Balakirev throughout and is undoubtedly one of the greatest of Romantic piano sonatas.

As a coda - and to honour two of Balakirev's main sources of inspiration - there's always Balakirev's popular and enchanting transcription of Glinka's song The Lark to enjoy and you will perhaps be intrigued to hear Balakirev's orchestration of Chopin's Scherzo No.3. 

No comments:

Post a Comment