If one were to ask fans of classical music to name the most
difficult piano piece to play, answers would likely cluster
around two works: Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit and Balakirev’s
Islamey. Whereas the former is among Ravel’s less popular
works, the latter is thought by many to be the only piano piece
Balakirev wrote. This collection of all Balakirev’s solo piano
music, by the Russian-American pianist Alexander Paley, disproves
that misconception. It is full of charming and entertaining
works across a wide palette.
Mili Balakirev occupies a pivotal place in Russian musical history.
His was the strongest personality within the “Mighty Handful”,
that group of composers all born in the period 1833 to 1844
comprising Borodin, Cui, Balakirev, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov.
They came together in St. Petersburg in the 1860s and were labelled
by Vladimir Stasov, a friend, writer and one-time Russian Fine
Arts Minister. Balakirev was a superb pianist, the best among
them, and a largely self-taught composer.
When the new Conservatories in St. Petersburg (1862) and Moscow
(1866) were established, he embraced them and participated in
their growth. But when he saw how elitist they were becoming
and how they were causing his colleagues to surpass him in musical
knowledge, he started the Free School of Music. He devoted enormous
time and energy to running the School, and to teaching, conducting
and composing throughout the 1860s. The Free School fell on
hard times in the early 1870s and Balakirev suffered what today
would be called a nervous breakdown.
Balakirev was a different man after the breakdown. He converted
from atheism to devout Russian Orthodoxy and his creative abilities
diminished. It’s generally acknowledged that his very best work
predates 1870, including Islamey (1869).
He took three vacations in the Caucasus area during the 1860s
and brought back folk-songs and the “oriental” idiom that found
its way into many of his compositions. Also present on these
tracks are the strong influences of Chopin and Liszt. He wrote
every type of piano music that Chopin wrote except Ballades,
and kept a picture of Liszt above his desk. The feeling was
mutual in that Liszt insisted that all his students learn to
Appropriately Islamey, subtitled An Oriental Fantasy,
leads off the first CD set and is followed by two other
fantasies and three nocturnes. Some parts of the nocturnes are
far from dreamlike. Two sonatas, one each written before and
after his breakdown, and a sonatina, the last piano piece he
wrote, occupy the second CD. Transcriptions of works by Beethoven,
Berlioz, Chopin, Glinka and Balakirev himself fill the third
CD. Chopin-like works, Waltzes, Mazurkas and Scherzos occupy
the next two, and the last CD is a miscellany of 14 short and
mostly charming pieces.
Alexander Paley was born in Moldova in 1956, not too far from
where Balakirev gathered his folk-songs almost a century earlier,
so he has this music in his soul. He plays with a crispness
and clarity that is vital in this repertoire. Even though the
recordings were made almost two decades ago, they remain fresh
and worth hearing. Adding to the enjoyment is a good set of
notes, including personal comments by the performer about each
CD 1 – Fantasies and Nocturnes