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Mily BALAKIREV (1837-1910)
Complete Piano Works - 1
Piano Sonata in B flat minor (1905) [24:27]
Piano Sonata in B flat minor, op.5 (First Sonata) (1856) [20:46]
Piano Sonata in B flat minor, op.3 (Grande Sonate) (1855) [31:10]
Nicholas Walker (piano)
rec. Wyastone Leys, Herefordshire, England, 10-13 June 2012. DDD
GRAND PIANO GP 636 [76:23]  

Variations on Themes from A Life for the Tsar (Glinka) (1855/1899) [12:38]
Au Jardin - Etude-Idylle in D flat (1884) [4:54]
Toccata (1902) [4:33]
Piano Sonata in B flat minor (1905) [24:43]
L'Alouette (The Lark) (after Glinka) (1855/1899) [5:20]
Islamey - Oriental Fantasy (1869/1902) [8:56]
Etsuko Hirose (piano)
rec. Cité Nantes Evenet Center, Nantes, France, 1-5 February 2012.
MIRARE MIR181 [61:04]

Many will be surprised to find three sonatas by Balakirev on volume one of Grand Piano's new survey of his complete solo piano works. Labels, pianists and critics seem to assume generally that there is only one, as Mirare have done on this 2012 release: the "Piano Sonata in B flat minor" played by Etsuko Hirose is "Balakirev's only sonata". What then has Nicholas Walker got his hands on? There is an obvious clue in the fact that that each sonata is in B flat minor, yet Balakirev did not simply revise the original work - even a quick perusal of the track-listing will suffice to show that these are three different sonatas. All doubts are swept away once the music is heard, despite some obvious overlap or recycling of material: Balakirev wrote three piano sonatas. Walker explains the differences - not to mention the reason for the sudden ending of op.3 - in his booklet notes.
So it is that, whilst Walker has much hallowed competition as far as the 1905 Sonata is concerned, he has the field pretty much to himself with the other two, especially op.3, which - 150 years on - is revealed as a world premiere. Walker writes that the 1905 incarnation is "surely the most original, wholly Russian, structurally successful and moving of all Russian sonatas, comparable with that of Liszt." That is a big claim - does it really make sense to discount the piano sonatas of Skriabin, Mossolov, Kabalevsky, Miaskovsky, Medtner or Prokofiev? - and one moreover that reasserts the frankly controversial idea that Liszt's B minor sonata stood aloft fifty years earlier. In fact, Balakirev's is an altogether more approachable, more immediate work, flowing with unforgettable Slavic flourishes and more cosmopolitan rhythms.
Walker and Hirose coincide very much in the piano sonata they both agree on, with very similar timings for all four movements, and a unity of approach that suggests Balakirev intended it played like this. Unlike Grand Piano's, the Mirare disc is, for the present at least, a standalone offering. Unfortunately the recording is marred by slight electrical interference that seems to run all the way through Hirose's recital and is most in evidence in the quiet spaces, especially at the ends of tracks. This very soft hiss may not be audible to all ears, especially under normal listening conditions, but at a high volume through headphones it is distinctly audible, especially in the quiet opening of The Lark. How this got past Mirare's production team is a mystery, but on the whole it is unlikely to undermine enjoyment of Hirose's programme. There is also some soft rustling in the opening Glinka Variations and elsewhere, but again not all that noticeable. Grand Piano's engineers have been more diligent, with good, solid audio throughout at Wyastone Leys - although someone slipped up to allow 'Lees'. 

Hirose 'winds down' with Islamey, probably Balakirev's best-known work, and a favourite of virtuosos wishing to demonstrate their prowess. It is not the most difficult piece in the repertoire, as it was long reputed to be, but it does make relentless, incredible demands on the performer. Hirose is equal to them, even if she does downplay somewhat the 'Oriental Fantasy' aspect. On the other hand, her saccharine-free andante espressivo is preferable to the syrup served up by some. 

Whilst both discs retail at the expensive end of things, Hirose's recital will likely hold wider appeal for those looking for a one-off purchase, with the lyrical loveliness of L'Alouette and Au Jardin, the known thrills of Islamey, the rhythmic jollity of the Toccata; all actually more French, Scandinavian or indeed Polish than Russian. Nationality is not in question though when it comes to Balakirev's virtuosic Variations on themes from Mikhail Glinka's 'A Life for the Tsar', certainly not when a series of gentle high trills imitates the music of the balalaika! On the other hand, Grand Piano give better value for money in terms of minutes and audio quality. Walker is excellent - keeping things moving, fresh, breezy, never too Russian for a composer who sounds - counter to his overtly nationalistic ideals - surprisingly occidental.
Mirare's Booklet notes are in English, French and, thoughtfully, Japanese, in place of which Grand Piano have the more orthodox German. There is more Gro Thorsen on their front cover, a vaguely Russian-looking picture - although the sun does shine in Russia too, not least in Balakirev's delightful, outstanding piano music.  


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