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MILY BALAKIREV (1837-1910) Disc 1 Symphony No. 1 (1866/97) 40:08 rec 1974 Overture on Three Russian Themes (1858) 8:19 rec 1978 Russia - Symphonic Poem (1864) 13:41 rec 1976 Overture on a Spanish March Theme (1857) 13:21 rec 1985 Disc 2 Symphony No. 2 (1908) 35:37 rec 1977 Tamara - Symphonic Poem (1867-82) 21:09 rec 1977 In Bohemia - Symphonic Poem (1867-1905) 11:59 rec 1983 Islamey - Oriental Fantasia (orch Lyapunov) (1869) 8:01 rec live 1986 USSRSO/Evgeny Svetlanov BMG-Melodiya 74321 49608 2 TWOFER CD1 [75:56] CD2 [77:14] [153:10]



Couplings of the two Balakirev symphonies are not uncommon. Naxos and Hyperion are examples although no doubt there are others. This set, which in terms of musical playing time is amongst the most generous in the BMG-Melodiya series, includes both symphonies and six other works, three tone poems and three overtures. Balakirev's dedication to folk music and the exotic orient is well known. It puts in an appearance to greater or lesser extents in all these works.

The first symphony has attracted several celebrity recordings. I have Karajan's and Beecham's EMI discs in mind. These two (often reissued) have tended to discourage competition until comparatively recently. I know the Beecham and rate it highly. I have not heard the Karajan/Philharmonia. Beecham, with his Ballets Russes background sweeps the board but this Svetlanov is lingeringly seductive. The acid test is the oriental song of the third movement which foreshadows Rimsky's Antar and Sheherazade. The other movements are equally elastic and responsive to the strange poetry of the Eastern ‘never-never land’ of a Thousand and One Nights.

The second symphony has some pleasing music and is worth getting to know but longer term it does not have the fresh strengths of the first symphony or Tamara. The first two of the four movements have some good moments where the imagination of the 70 year old composer glows scarlet when in the years of the first symphony it was white hot.

At over 21 minutes Tamara is both the most famous and most substantial of the six non-symphony works. The others play for between 8 and 13 minutes.

Tamara predictably attracted Leon Bakst for production as a ballet and has it all. It is death-centred with large helpings of seduction, deceit, violence and eroticism.

The work was written after three trips to the Caucasus: 1862, 1863 and 1868. It was finished in 1882. The storyline is based on the story by Mikhail Lermontov who depicts Tamara the temptress, half angel, half demon who seduces passing travellers and who after a night of orgiastic pleasure murders them and casts their bodies into the River Terek.

The violence is vivid, but most immediate in impact is the sensuous abandon in a gem of a main theme presented in swaying strings. Svetlanov gives free rein to every element of the fantasy - just listen to the side-drum accompanied dance. Bax was much influenced by this work and you can hear the young Bax in this revolutionary work of high romance. The work has a symphonic symmetry. It is not difficult to see it as a single movement symphony.

The Overture on Russian Themes is a skillfully presented sequence of songs of which two will probably be well known to many classical listeners. The second theme is immediately recognised from Tchaikovsky's 4th symphony and the finale uses the bustling Easter Fair theme later used by Stravinsky in Petrushka.

The symphonic poem Russia (Rus) is quite low key, more a Russian rhapsody than a symphonic conception. It has its moments.

The rarest work here is the Overture on a Spanish March Theme which reminded me more of Massenet (Le Cid) rather than Rimsky's Capriccio Espagnole. If it occasionally sounds rather like 'The Keel Row' this does no harm. In any event it is a pretty insubstantial piece even if it does seek to portray the expulsion of the Moors from Spain. There are many tawdry episodes and it is here as a generous and welcome curiosity rather than there being an implication that it is of the same stature as Tamara.

In Bohemia is a better and more enduring work than the Spanish overture. It is based on three Czech folk tunes although Balakirev gives each of them a decidedly Russian caste. The work is recognisable as the music of the same composer who wrote the Russian Folk Songs overture and Tamara. It is not at all like Dvorak but is a Russian 'take' on three tunes from a fellow Slav nation.

Lastly comes the hectic and febrile Islamey, a work better known as a fiendishly challenging piano piece here brought to orchestral colours by the composer's close friend Lyapunov. Lyapunov brings out the Rimsky (Antar and Sheherazade) echoes. This is a live performance - the only one in the set to feature the odd cough. The whole is performed with hectic speed and abandon (almost gabbled) but greeted with cheers from the normally inexpressive and taciturn Russian audiences.

The notes mention, in passing, Casella's orchestration of Islamey. I hope that some company will record that version.

Informatively useful notes by Sigrid Neef: English, German and French. The translations from the German are usually pretty lucid but there are lapses. A choice one is the following: 'Impressionistic tone painting of river, tower and countryside is interdigitated at the beginning with Tamara's themes.' There is also the occasional epic sentence almost lost in convolution. Try page 6, column 1, the sentence beginning 'instead'.

The Hyperion two CD set is now also at mid-price and is attractive with recordings dating from the early 1980s, Edward Garden's authoritative notes, the excellent Philharmonia conducted by Svetlanov but a certain languor has settled on the interpretations and the timings for all the works are longer than the timings for the Melodiya performances. Apart from losing out on the liquid tones of the Russian brass (you either love that tone or hate it - I love it) you also get only some of the smaller pieces. The pieces not included are In Bohemia, the Spanish March overture and the Islamey fantasy. Nevertheless the Hyperion represents first choice for those who must have excellent digital (DDD) recording quality. I have both sets and certainly prefer the Melodiya (ADD) versions.

Good artwork, nice choice of cover painting and tasteful design typical of the Twofer series. Space-economical single thickness CD case. Mid-price. Glowing performances of works of a magical fantasy. What more could you reasonably ask?


Rob Barnett


Rob Barnett

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