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Mili BALAKIREV (1837-1910)
Complete Piano Works – Volume 6
La Fileuse (the spinner) (1906) [3:23]
Au jardin – idyll-ťtude (1884) [4:38]
Tamara (1867-82, arr. Nicholas Walker, 2019) [21:10]
Polka in F sharp minor (1859) [2:44]
Elegy on the death of a Mosquito (1855, completed Nicholas Walker, 2019) [1:12]
La danse de sorciŤres (1856, completed Nicholas Walker, 2019) [2:58]
Tyrolienne (1902) [4:50]
Toccata in C sharp minor (1902) [4:25]
Islamey – fantasie orientale (1869) [8:51]
Mikhail GLINKA (1804-1857)
Kamarinskaya (1848, arr. Balakirev, 1902) [7:48]
Ne govori: lyubov' proydyot (Do not say: love passes away) (1834, arr. Balakirev, 1903) [4:18]
The Lark – a farewell to St Petersburg No.10 (1840, arr. Balakirev, 1864)
Platon Vasil'evich ZAPOL'SKY (1838-1904)
RÍverie (arr. Balakirev, 1890) [6:53]
Nicholas Walker (piano)
Rec. November, 2019 at St Silas the Martyr Church, Kentish Town, London
GRAND PIANO GP846 [80:04]

With this CD Nicholas Walker reaches the end of his superb series exploring the complete solo piano music of the influential pianist and composer Mili Balakirev. His name is well known though beyond a couple of pieces, notably his virtuosic fantasy Islamey, his piano music has not made it into general awareness. One possible reason is that Balakirev rarely writes for the amateur pianist; pretty much all of his piano output requires a quite advanced level of technical competence. Islamey isn't his sole finger-twister. Be that as it may there is a lot of attractive music to discover, not least the evocative idyll Au jardin which I previously only knew from an old Concert Artists cassette in a performance by Malcolm Binns. This is a nocturne-like piece, for me one of Balakirev's most beautiful piano works; its passionate melody is set over an intricate arpeggio accompaniment. Both become more complex as the piece unfolds; the trick is to maintain that air of unforced lyricism among these many strands, a feat that Walker manages marvellously. He is similarly adept in the treacherous spinning song that opens the recital. La Fileuse, the spinner is dedicated to Liszt pupil Moriz Rosenthal, who wrote a few finger-twisters of his own. Unlike the delicate spinning songs of Raff or Henselt or the hypnotic turning of the wheel in Schubert's Getchen am Spinnrade this is a dazzling etude in all but name that calls for clarity of line in very busy passagework while keeping a steady cool in the melody. My main query is how Balakirev imagined such a manic spinner – the wheel would be red hot by the end of the piece.

In my review to Volume 5 (Grand Piano GP811 Review) I noted Balakirev's love and admiration for the music of Mikhail Glinka and more evidence is supplied by his masterly transcription of Glinka's Kamarinskaya. This colourful orchestral piece is an arrangement of two folk themes; a wedding song, Over the hills, the high hills and a wedding dance Kamarinskaya. Despite the repetition of the themes heard in this work – I haven't counted but I believe there are over seventy iterations of the three-bar motif - Balakirev manages to convey the variety of the original with a great sense of colour and excitement. Two more Glinka transcriptions are here; The Lark is the more familiar of the two but his less often played Do not say: love passes away is worth hearing. It grows in passion with each verse; like Liszt in many of his song transcriptions he finds fresh textures for each new verse turning Glinka's little song into an altogether grander, more impassioned work. In the RÍverie by Zapol'sky we feel we are in the world of Schumann and his Kinderszenen as the simple melody is given an equally simple treatment. The calm is shattered in the more tumultuous central section with figurations reminiscent of Tamara or Islamey; I was also reminded of the middle of Liszt's transcription of Tschaikosvky's Eugene Onegin Polonaise.
As a centrepiece of the recital we hear Nicholas Walker's stunning transcription of Balakirev's symphonic poem Tamara. Balakirev based his music on the poem by Mikhail Lermontov; it tells of a beautiful but deadly queen whose castle overlooks the Dar'yal Gorge. She lures travellers to her tower enticing them to “their bridal night's wild distraction” though ultimately they are “in truth at their own death feast” and their bodies are cast into the violence of the River Terek flowing through the gorge. The opening pages are like an ominous version of the opening of Smetana's Vltava, the hush of the rippling waters revealing nothing of the dangerous rapids still to come. Elements of Scheherazade can be heard in these early moments and especially in the sinuous, supple dance of the queen, accompanied by a distinctive snare drum rhythm. Walker brings this all together marvelously, capturing the serenity of the ending, which could almost have been written for the piano as it is, to the abandon of the night's bacchanalian orgy and the ferocity of the Terek.

Walker's other contributions as composer/arranger are on a much smaller scale; they are completions of the unpublished miniatures Elegy on the death of a mosquito and the Witches' dance. Two bars were required to complete the early anopheline elegy. The unfortunate mosquito only makes a brief appearance; its buzzing, a high trill and chromatic run, is cut short by a dry short stabbing chord and a mournful choral is heard before the final twitches of the dying insect interrupt the proceedings. The manuscript of the Witches' dance dates from 1856 and evidently required more work. Balakirev broke off after two pages and Walker has completed the central section and provided a very convincing coda – the booklet has an image of the bars at which the manuscript breaks off. The work is an exciting virtuoso study in rapid right hand figuration.

Balakirev's earliest published work precedes these two miniatures, the short polka written a couple of years after the Witches' dance. It is a little dance in a minor key and with a middle section in the major key. This is more lyrical and sets the theme of the polka, now in the left hand against a counter melody. The Tyrolienne dance is akin to his mazurkas in its rhythms and figuration, suave and flexible in its outer sections and more overtly virtuosic in the rugged dance at its heart. It is a wonderfully constructed piece, that grows more complex as it progresses; I was particularly pleased with the section where the melody is accompanied by a lightly tripping right hand decoration. The Toccata from the same year (1902) is a dazzlingly, dashing exercise in double notes and octaves that still manages to strive for delicacy and charm, both of which Walker finds aplenty in this demanding work.

Rounding off the recital and the entire series is perhaps Balakirev's most familiar work, certainly his most famous work for piano, Islamey. It was the nemesis of Alexander Skriabin, who allegedly damaged his hand practising it to compete with his classmate Josef Lhevinne, and inspiration and challenge for Maurice Ravel who wrote Scarbo to top its technical hurdles; it has entered the repertoire of many pianists eager to try to tame it – and I have heard those who have failed to. Its difficulties may be legion but its enduring appeal for me is its colour and vibrancy, the elements of its subtitle – oriental fantasy – developed as a kaleidoscopic weave of texture and rhythm. There are too many recordings out there for comparisons. Suffice it to say that while Walker would not be my absolute top choice (I still turn to Berezovsky on Teldec 256466468-4 Review) he would nonetheless bring the house down with this performance.

These six volumes of the complete Balakirev solo piano music are a great achievement and testament to Walker's love and admiration for this under-represented master.

Rob Challinor

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