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Mily BALAKIREV (1837-1910)
CD1 [64:44]
Symphony No. 1 in C major (1866-1898) [41:46]
Overture to King Lear (1857) [10:39]
In Bohemia Symphonic Poem (1867) [12:02]
CD2 [69:20]
Symphony No. 2 (1907-1908) [34:58]
Piano Concerto in F sharp minor, Op. 1* (1855) [13:14]
Tamara - Symphonic Poem (1867) [20:46]
Howard Shelley (piano)*
BBC Philharmonic/Vassily Sinaisky
Rec. Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester, 28-29 August 1997 (CD1); 7-8 April 1998 (CD2). DDD
CHANDOS CHAN 241-29 [64:44 + 69:20]

If you are in the market for a superbly recorded 2CD collection of the symphonies of Balakirev topped up with some shorter pieces the contest is on between this Chandos set and one from Hyperion (Philharmonia/Svetlanov). Both sets sport British orchestras and Russian conductors. On recording quality the Chandos has it by a nose but there's really not that much in it. Couplings may make the difference. In both cases you get Tamara which is essential listening for any Russian music buff. Sinaisky has the advantage of Studio 7 in Manchester and an orchestra which has a long tradition of radio performances of Balakirev going back to the 1940s as the BBC Northern Orchestra. In addition Sinaisky can offer the early Piano Concerto - pleasant but hardly a deal-clincher.

Sinaisky coaxes authentic Russian sounds from this Northern British radio orchestra. Listen to the scorching abrasive trumpets in the first movement of the First Symphony at 9:55. He inculcates mystery into the dark-ochre Mendelssohnian Scherzo. His clarinettist sings the beguilement of the Andante with artful gentleness pointing towards Tchaikovsky. The finale has some dancing work for the woodwind looking to Rimsky and Borodin.

The Lear Overture is dark as befits its tragic subject with stark brass and a stern and grave manner recalling, with a Russian accent, Mendelssohn's Ruy Blas and Schumann's Julius Caesar. While In Bohemia which started out as Overture on Czech Themes (companion to his delightful Overture on Russian Themes - not on this set but on the Hyperion) uses three Czech songs. With a pipe and tabor grace and a similar harmonic world the work occasionally recalls Tamara without that work's sinister and enthralling miasma.

The second CD has the Second Symphony as its principal focus. This was written between 1900 and 1908. It was premiered under the baton of Lyapunov who was to provide a psychedelic orchestration of Balakirev's piano fantasy Islamey - then again Lyapunov did write a tone poem called Hashish. Lyapunov also completed Balakirevís intriguing Second Piano Concerto. The Second Symphony is excellent with an identical layout to the First. The gestures are recognisable Balakirev but the second movement scherzo has more of the grandeur of the Russian courts about it. The andante makes a pass at the magic of his First Symphony andante but can't quite reach. The Tamara is excellent - in fact itís probably the best reading in the set. The First Piano Concerto is certainly pleasant extra and is very nicely done but hardly the be-all and end-all of this set.

A couple of tangential thoughts for the Chandos top table. First why not try a two or three symphony CD in which Sinaisky conducts the symphonies of Latvian composer Janis Ivanovs. Second, we already know that Sinaisky is no mean Sibelian (try his 3CD collection of tone poems on a long deleted Harmonia Mundi Saisons Russes box) so what about the symphonies? Third (getting carried away now), Chandos have made such a superb job out of various historic Melodiya tapes (Prokofiev operas and Shostakovich quartets) why not sweep the field with a revival of Rozhdestvensky's 1970s traversal of the seven Sibelius symphonies.

Back to Balakirev and Sinaisky ... The fully detailed booklet note is by Charles Searson whose description of the Second Symphony is a tad too technical but otherwise reads well and informs helpfully.

This set is at two-for-one price and the recordings are just over five years old. It is irresistible if you like these couplings for the two symphonies and want very good modern recording technology. Beecham's Tamara and Symphony No. 1 are superb of course but the EMI sound, while golden in its own terms, cannot match this. Also good and in contemporary sound is the slow-to-impress Loughran single CD on Danacord. Truth to tell though the BBC Phil sound much better in the string department than their brethren in Aarhus. If you want magic and can settle for coarser yet more vivid sound then track down the generously-timed BMG-Melodiya double collection with the USSRSO conducted by Svetlanov; you will have to do without the Piano Concerto though.

Rob Barnett


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