Theme and Variations

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

Thursday, December 31, 2009

More Balakirev

This business of exploring composers in my collection is getting expensive; I usually find out about more works from a composer or performer which ends up as a purchase to expand said collection. Such has happened with Balakirev, but thanks goodness for Naxos, so it's not too bad.

I suspect Naxos gets a bad rap because its catalog consists of little known performers, often playing little known or niche works, and at a very low price as well. I confess I was a bit of a classical snob (a term coined by a former roommate), buying only known works by the big symphony orchestras, and famous soloists for concerti. However, Naxos has made a believer of me. Many of their recordings get recommendations from such periodicals as Gramophone, plus Grammy nominations. Snobbery would have me miss these Balakirev symphonies, plus some additional works, so I'm glad I'm over that!

The first symphony, Symphony No. 1 in C Major, also includes an orchestrated version of his piano work Islamey, plus the tone poem Tamara. It is performed by the Russian State Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Igor Golovschin.

The Russian State Symphony Orchestra began in 1936, and was been under the direction of Evgeny Svetlanov from 1965 to 2000. His Assistant Conductor was Golovschin. The orchestra has played all over the world, specializing in Russian classical and contemporary works, "...from Glinka to Shostakovich, Khachaturian and Sviridov."

The symphony sounds great. Balakirev started work on the symphony in 1864, but did not complete it until 1897. In between a religious conversion kept him briefly out of the music world between 1871 and 1874. He rejoined the musical world in 1881 as director of the Free School of Music, so at least part of those 33 years he was a busy man.

I love it. There are themes that come from Russian folk songs (which are not familiar to me, I'm only going by the CD notes), what sounds like time shifts, perhaps in and out of 5/4 time, in the style that inspired Dave Brubeck's Take Five. True to the composer's intentions, this is a Russian, not German work. However, it is still a Romantic work, and folks who like the orchestral works of Rachmaninov will like those of Balakirev.

Islamey was originally a work for piano, and it's a knuckle-buster. (The Piano Society has notes and an online version here.) It is mostly based on themes from music Balakirev heard from the Caucasus and Armenian region. The orchestral version here was orchestrated by Sergei Liapunov.

The symphonic tone poem Tamara is about a beautiful but evil princess who lives in a palace in a wild countryside. Weary (and unwary) travelers are lured to the tower seeking shelter. The traveler has a wild, erotic night, but continues his journey in the morning as a corpse floating down a river.

The Symphony No. 2 in D Minor is performed by the same orchestra and conductor as on the first symphony CD. Balakirev worked much faster on this work, starting in 1900 and finishing in 1908. It was first performed under the baton of his protege Liapunov at the Free School of Music.

Finally, this second CD contains the symphonic poem Rus. This work went through several versions starting in the 1860's, changing names a few times, until he completed it in the 1880's.

These have been wonderful discoveries for me. It has led me to search for other works of The Mighty Five (even Cesar Cui; I've liked the little that I have heard). As I listen to them, I'll write them up here. But another new discovery for me has been Charles de BĂ©riot, a composer of violin works. That's who will be in my CD player next.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Mily Alexeyevich Balakirev

I'm going backwards in the order a bit, as I just discovered a CD by Mily Alexeyevich Balakirev. He is best known as a member of the Russian "Mighty Handful," or, sometimes referred to as "The Mighty Five." This group, mostly self taught, was determined to promote what they believed was true Russian music. They believed that the Russian music world was too heavily influenced by German musical ideas, thus they sought to define and encourage the development of Russian musical arts.

The free music site Classical Cat has a list of a few of his works available online.

The works I have are two piano concerti, plus a Grand Fantaisie on Russian Folksongs. The first concerto has only one movement lasting a little over fourteen minutes long. The second concerto in E flat major was not completed by composer, though the sketches for it were composed so that another Russian composer, Sergey Lyapunov, could complete the last movement with Balakirev's blessing.

Balakirev's primary instrument was the piano, and apparently he was a good one. That, to me, is reflected in these concerti, which seem technical but still enjoyable to the ear. I tend to like Russian music in the Romantic style, and Balakirev's music fits the bill. Though his biographies indicate that he was an unpleasant fellow at times, I think he did accomplish what he set out to do, and that is define and promote a Russian style of music. I think his works do not get the recognition they deserve, nor the playing of which they are worthy. I'm glad that Naxos is dedicated to bringing out little known gems of classical music.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Leonard Bernstein

I order my collection alphabetically by either composer or performer, but not by conductor. If I did order by the latter, I suspect that my collection of Leonard Bernstein CD's would have the largest number. This man was a prolific recording conductor with many, if not all, of the major symphony orchestras in the world. I find that I like recordings that he conducts most, and when faced with a number of conductors and ensembles for a particular work, I'll choose the Bernstein recording first.

A short biography can be found here.

However, he did more than just conduct; he also composed, and his works blur the line between opera and Broadway musical. I suppose his best known work was the music for West Side Story (which, sadly, I have not seen, though it is in the DVD queue). The closest he gets to opera is in Candide, the theatrical version of Voltaire's book of the same name. One of the CD's I have is entitled Bernstein: The Best of All Possible Worlds, a reference to a character of the story, Dr. Pangloss, who maintains that we live in "The best of all possible worlds," an assertion that causes the impressionable young Candide no end of trouble. Bernstein's overture is one of the composer's most loved works.

The CD I mention is a double disc set, which is organized in a rather clever way. One of the discs contain original composed works, while the second disc contains works that Bernstein conducted.

The second disc set I have is entitled Essential Leonard Bernstein, which highlights his compositions from West Side Story, Candide, On the Town, Fancy Free, Wonderful Town, and On the Waterfront. There are additional concert works, such as Prelude, Fugue and Riffs.

I'm also lucky to have found some Bernstein videos. One is a special set of nine DVD's from his Young People's Concerts with the New York Philharmonic. I've watched a few of these black-and-white shows, which aired on CBS from the late 1950's, and they are entertaining, as well as informative. The other set I have not watched, and are entitled The Unanswered Question, six lectures he gave at Harvard.

As usual, Wikipedia has a great entry on Leonard Bernstein that I'd rather reference than repeat.

To close, I found a YouTube entry of Bernstein conducting his Candide Overture.

(If it doesn't show, you can find it here.)

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Rach music