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Mily BALAKIREV (1837-1910)
Tamara - symphonic poem (1882) [21:47]
Piano Concerto No. 1 (1855) [13:33]
Symphony No. 1 (1864-97) [42:59]
Oleg Marshev (piano)
Aarhus Symphony Orchestra/James Loughran
rec. Aarhus, Frichsparken, 18 Sept 2002, 3-7 Nov 2003. DDD

Jesper Bühl and Lennart Dehn can take considerable pride in this disc. The coupling is both generous and original. The addition of the youthful and compact piano concerto was an open-handed gesture. Other labels have simply coupled Tamara and the First Symphony. Of course the way is now open presumably for a similar Aarhus venture with the Second Symphony and Second Piano Concerto to round out the picture. This would also give Oleg Marshev a work of more grit and fibre than the showy glitter of Balakirev’s first youthful effort.

Danacord's results across the board are outstanding in audio terms and Loughran is a doughty interpreter of the Russian nationalist romantics - part of his heritage as a BBC radio orchestra conductor. That said the tone of the Aarhus strings is good though not as lustrous and stinging as the USSRSO for Svetlanov on BMG-Melodiya nor as the Philharmonia with the same conductor on Hyperion. Of course neither of those alternatives offer the First Piano Concerto. In addition in a very few places rhythmic emphasis seems smudged and unstrung as at 5:02 in Tamara where I would have expected a tauter control. Loughran certain captures the Bakst-Diaghilev abandon of the bacchanale at 16:12. He is similarly successful when things turn murderous as sultry seductress Tamara becomes Tamara assassin and as the hapless traveller's body floats down river as another victim.

The First Concerto is amongst the earliest Russian examples of the piano concerto with only Anton Rubinstein's first two preceding it. Mogens Wenzel Andreasen's note mentions ‘Chopin with a Russian accent’ - very close, I would say. If you know the early Scriabin Piano Concerto and perhaps the Arensky those also are closeish cousins without the invincible melodies of the Scriabin work. This performance is rather heavy-footed at 1:22 in the orchestral introduction but once things hot up and the piano appears the scene is transformed. Every bit as good as the Hyperion coupling of the two Balakirev concertos.

To the Symphony. After a mournful and evocative introduction we are treated to a tight and successful Allegro vivo with the bustle of adrenaline rising to a regal statement at 4:21 being well carried off. The Mendelssohnian elfin scherzo is irresistibly woven with the oh so Russian counter-melody. The andante is nicely hushed though I do think that the solo clarinet phrasing is rather matter of fact. This is after all one of the most romantic of Russian symphonic andantes. As an alternative you may wish to try either Karajan or Beecham on EMI or Svetlanov on Hyperion or BMG-Melodiya. The movement does however sound succulent and for an example of its strengths try the award-winning recording of the harp and other instruments at the end of the andante. Oriental evenings are put aside for a very Russian vigour in the Finale (3:12). The Slav flavour of the woodwind is beautifully caught at 5:12 onwards. The final tramping bacchanale and reminiscences of houris, palanquins and exotic evenings is extremely well done.

I have the occasional quibble and would not want to be without Beecham or Svetlanov but the more I hear this resonant yet detailed recording the more I like it. A ‘slow-burn’ then and a disc I happily recommend.

Rob Barnett



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