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Mily Alexeyevich BALAKIREV (1837-1910)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in F sharp minor, Op. 1 (1855-56) [14:17]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in E flat major (completed by Sergei Lyapunov) (1864/1906) [36:41]
Grande Fantaisie on Russian Folksongs, Op. 4 (1852) [18:32]
Anastasia Seifetdinova (piano)
Russian Philharmonic Orchestra/Dmitry Yablonsky
rec. 25-30 November 2006, Studio 5, Russian State TV & Radio, Co KULTURA, Moscow, Russia
NAXOS 8.570396 [69:27]
Experience Classicsonline

Russian music owes much to the efforts of Mily Balakirev, who helped bring about the nationalist ‘school’ of composers known as ‘The Five’. This and his career as pianist, conductor and teacher meant his creative output was rather limited, some works left unfinished or completed by other hands. This is a noticeable trend among ‘The Five’, Borodin and Mussorgsky in particular, but in Balakirev’s case he also seemed to lose interest in his compositions. Indeed, the second concerto, begun in 1862, took no less than forty years to complete; even then fellow composer Sergei Lyapunov had to orchestrate the last movement.
A quick Google confirms that the oriental fantasy Islamey is far and away the most popular of Balakirev’s piano works – there are around 50 recordings in the catalogue – while the concertos hardly figure at all. That said, the Sinaisky/BBC Phil set of Balakirev from Chandos – also available as an MP3 or lossless download –  is well worth acquiring, not least for the pianistic skills of Howard Shelley in the first concerto (CHAN 241-29).
The Ukrainian-born pianist Anastasia Seifetdinova may not be in the same league but she certainly makes the most of the 18-year-old Balakirev’s Op. 1, which opens with an atmospheric drum-roll. As David Truslove points out in his liner-notes this concerto – in traditional sonata form – is a work of assimilation. That certainly sounds to be the case, although there are expressive passages that prefigure the melodic richness of Tchaikovsky’s B flat minor concerto, completed in 1875.
The Russian Philharmonic Orchestra, inclined to roughness in tuttis, are nevertheless decently recorded. As for Seifetdinova’s piano sound – and technique – it’s much beefier than Shelley’s. The downside is that her performance lacks a degree of subtlety. Yablonsky, the mainstay of Naxos’s Russian catalogue, isn’t blameless either. He paces the music well enough, but he doesn’t come close to the easy, free-flowing Romanticism that makes Sinaisky’s reading so much more rewarding to listen to. The BBC Philharmonic string and woodwind players also bring a mixture of character and finesse to the score, qualities their Russian counterparts can’t quite muster. Simply put, the Chandos recording belies the slightness of this concerto, while the Naxos merely confirms it.
Arguably the second concerto is the more individual of the two; it’s clearly on a more ambitious scale, but its extended gestation may have something to do with the work’s general lack of cohesion and focus. The opening of the first movement promises much, as does the soloist’s rhapsodic first entry, and despite a rather rude orchestral riposte at 1:35 this performance does at least sound spontaneous. That said, the dancing rhythms at 4:16 are a touch unwieldy and the brass have that typical Russian edge that certainly adds a dash of local colour to the musical mix. Then at 7:44 there’s that curious mock serious passage for the soloist – a touch of wry humour, surely – followed by a brief section at 8:10 that sounds remarkably like Shostakovich.
After the Allegro’s  scintillating close the Adagio gets off to a poor start with some of the worst intonation I’ve heard in a long time; forgivable in a live performance – just – but surely a retake would have been possible here? Actually this is a good metaphor for the performance as a whole; it’s undoubtedly invigorating at times but really the playing leaves much to be desired. At least Seifetdinova throws herself into the music to thrilling effect, especially in those grand scalar passages. If only the orchestra were less bloated and the playing less wayward this would be a much better performance than it is.
Apparently Balakirev did most of the work for the final movement, so at least it’s an ‘almost is’ rather than a ‘never was’. There is a leanness to the orchestration and a touch more focus to the piano part, so this Allegro risoluto sounds very different from the first two movements, not least in its greater rhythmic vitality and its striking  harmonies. Yablonsky and his band are every bit as gruff as before, though, and I found myself longing for a little more refinement, even in those big, brazen tunes. Admittedly, some listeners may prefer this approach, claiming it’s more authentically Russian, but I strongly suspect there’s more to this concerto than we are allowed to hear.
The Grande Fantaisie (also recorded on Toccata Classics - see review) was written when the self-taught composer was just 15, so one might be tempted to write it off as a piece of juvenilia. Don’t. The powerful orchestral opening and the piano’s first, rambling entry are certainly arresting, and even if the orchestration is a touch foursquare this is still a lively, purposeful piece that actually benefits from this team’s larger-than-life approach to the score. In the mellifluous and extended piano passages Seifetdinova impresses too; at last, this disc lives up to some of its initial promise. How assured this work is for someone so young, and how it demands to be played again and again. A rough diamond, but a diamond nonetheless.
I so wanted to be more positive about the concertos but there are just too many caveats to merit a recommendation. That said, I’d buy this disc just for the Grande Fantaisie, even if, like so much of Balakirev’s output, it was never completed. So, one cheer – a rousing one – rather than three.
Dan Morgan


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