Theme and Variations

Thoughts and experiences of exploring classical, jazz, and other art music.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Balakirev and Rimsky-Korsakov Piano Concerti

Taking a break from the Bach recordings, my next study has been of the piano concerti of Mili Balakirev and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. The recording is part of a series entitled The Romantic Piano Concerto produced by Hyperion Records.

Balakirev was the leader of a group of self-taught composers known, in translation, as The Five or The Mighty Handful. Their purpose was to develop a distinctly Russian sounding music, apart from the German-based style which had dominated the 19th century.

Since Balakirev's name comes before Rimsky-Korsakov's, I filed this CD under "B" in my collection.

The recording, however, begins with Rimsky-Korsakov's Piano Concerto in C Sharp Minor, op. 30. This is a relative short concerto in three parts, taking just less than 14 1/2 minutes in length. This concerto takes its primary theme from a folksong collection published by Balakirev in 1866. The concerto itself was written in the 1882 to 1883 time frame. There is no separation between movements in this work; the next movement begins immediately at the end of the preceding movement. You can hear the change in the music, but I found I had to look at the CD player to determine where I was in my listening. This is a very lyrical work, with the piano and orchestra working together. The folksong theme is varied throughout the piece.

According to the liner notes, this concerto was influential to Rachmaninov when he wrote his first piano concerto less than ten years later.

There are actually two concerti by Balakirev on the CD. The first one is his first published, Op. 1, in F Sharp Minor. Coming in a 13 and 1/2 minutes, it consists of a single movement. It premiered in 1856, just one year after he was brought to St. Petersburg (where The Five resided) by a patron. Balakirev was influenced by Chopin, naming the latter's E minor concerto as a favorite. He never got around to add a second and third movement, as his attention was turned elsewhere. It wasn't until 1861 that he began work on another concerto, his number 2 in E Flat Major. This work also started out as a single movement; it wasn't until the 20th century that a second movement was added, beginning in 1906. Upon his death, only the first two movements were complete; a close associate, Sergei Liapunov, completed the concerto with a finale that was written along the lines of the composers wishes.

I would not say that this is among my favorite recordings. Though by and large I like the works of The Five (Borodin being my favorite), there aren't any great themes that reach out of the stereo and grab me. I would recommend the CD to anyone who collects the music of The Five, but, for myself, this is music in which I need to be in the mood.

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