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 Bériot, a composer of violin works. That's who will be in my CD player next.