Mili Alekseyevich Balakirev (1837-1910) was a very important man in his time, at least partly because he was the leader of that group of five Russian composers -- 'The Mighty Handful' -- that included Rimsky-Korsakov, Cui, Mussorgsky and Borodin. Unfortunately the music he composed has mostly fallen out of familiarity (except for the rightfully popular 'Islamey') and we have British pianist Nicholas Walker to thank for his championing of the composer's works. He has recorded some of the smaller pieces before Balakirev: Piano Music & Piano Music 2 on other labels, but I have not heard them. This disc promises to be the first of a series that will include all his piano music. And if this disc is any measure, we have much to anticipate eagerly.
The works here are related to each other although they span a distance of fifty-odd years from each other. The disc opens with the 1905 Sonata in B Flat Minor, followed by the 1856 Sonata in B Flat Minor, Op. 5 (called the First Piano Sonata) and the unfinished earlier 1855 Grande Sonata in B Flat Minor. Notice that all three sonatas are in the same key. And that is not chance. It turns out that all three sonatas are widely divergent works nonetheless based in large measure on similar materials. One could say indeed that they are three versions of the same work. Each stands on its own.
The 1905 work is easily the most masterful of the lot. Particularly interesting is the first movement which somehow manages to combine classic sonata form and fugue. Underlying it all is an unmistakably Russian flavor; although the melodies are original with Balakirev, they sound like they had arisen from the Russian soil. The second movement, rather than being a Scherzo, is a Mazurka (as is the second movement of all three sonatas). It is a complete rewriting of the mazurkas of both earlier sonatas; it is longer, makes a bigger statement and is simply brilliant in performance. The third movement, Intermezzo, is a musing slow movement that makes a surprise reappearance in the lively finale, thus leading to a serene ending. This work is easily one of the most marvelous Russian piano sonatas of all.
The earliest work, written at eighteen while Balakirev was in Kazan studying for a degree in mathematics -- he dropped out of school and through the help of a benefactor wound up studying music in St. Petersburg -- is a huge work that is nonetheless unfinished. Its first movement is heroic, lasting twelve minutes, and sounds almost improvisatory in spots. It uses a Russian-sounding melody that recurs in both later works. It is somewhat marred by clichéd overuse of rapid repeating notes in the melodic line. The second movement is an early version of the Mazurka heard in subsequent versions. It sounds exceedingly technically demanding; Walker handles its demands with aplomb. The third movement, Andante, is hymnlike. The fourth movement is marked 'Finale: Allegro grazioso' and has great forward drive. Apparently its manuscript is filled with rewritings and corrections and in one spot a fugue begins only to be scratched out. That fugue, lasting 22 bars, is appended to this performance as an epilog to the sonata.
The revision one year later became what is called the First Sonata and was dedicated to his friend, the young military engineer and avocational composer César Cui. The first movement has a slow introduction followed by the main section marked Allegro assai, feroce. It is followed by a somewhat altered version of the Mazurka of the earlier sonata. The third movement, the sonata's finale, is reminiscent of the Intermezzo of the Sonata Op. 3 and presages the Andante of the 1905 version.
Having lived with this CD for several days I am in awe of Balakirev's melodic fecundity and increasing craft over the years. His 1905 sonata can easily be called a masterpiece and I would love to hear it in concert and to see a score. To have heard the earlier works is an unusual opportunity to see the workings of a brilliant musical talent.