Balakirev
Piano Sonata in B flat minor
Nocturne No.2 in B minor; Mazurkas – No.1 in A flat & No.2 in B minor; Valse-Caprice No.2 in D flat; Waltz No.4 in B flat; The Lark [after Glinka]; Scherzo No.1 in B minor; Polka in F sharp minor
Danny Driver (piano)

Recorded 2-4 March 2010 in Henry Wood Hall, London
CD No: HYPERION CDA67806
Duration: 69 minutes
Reviewed: January 2011
A member of “The Mighty Handful”, Mily Balakirev (1837-1910) was an influence not only on his collective comrades (Borodin, Cui, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov) but also on other composers, including Tchaikovsky. He was viewed as naturally authoritative, and he was also a pianist of concert standard, if one seemingly reluctant to have a full-blown career. But his keyboard skills meant that Balakirev really knew how to write for the piano. His articulate Sonata in B flat minor is a fine example of his craft. Four movements it may have, but traditional form is not followed (but neither did Beethoven). It’s a thoroughly attractive work, beginning calmly, with just a hint of the Orient in the intervals, the fugal aspects that remind of J. S. Bach leavened by some romance and with the occasional flourish to disturb the placid waters. The second movement is a dance-like, specifically a Mazurka, which of course reminds of Chopin, yet there is a Russian ‘tang’ to be heard, too. The slow movement is charming and the finale is the most virtuosic; yet in his attempt to get away from the Austro-German example of Sonata-writing, even now Balakirev seeks a winded-down and peaceful conclusion.
Danny Driver gives a superb account of this likeable and lucid work, playing with enviable clarity and sympathy as well as choosing convincing tempos. Driver suggests that he has great affection for this rather disarming and endearing work. As he does for the shorter pieces, which are no less attractive, be it the rather soulful B minor Nocturne, or the pair of Mazurkas – one earthy, the other reflective (the Chopin model is unmistakable) – the Lisztian exploits of the Valse-Caprice, or the whimsicality of the B flat Waltz. With his embellished transcription of Glinka’s lovely song “The Lark”, Balakirev pays tribute to “the father of Russian music”. The B minor Scherzo has an arresting opening, the work itself agile in its progression, with a gentle mid-point, and building to a heroic conclusion. The F sharp minor Polka ends the recital in amiable mood if with contrasting episodes.
That Islamey (Balakirev's finger-breaking tour de force) is not included is a shame – it would have fitted – yet maybe the plan is for a second volume of his piano music. That would be very welcome – for this current release contains exemplary performances, first-class sound and excellent annotation. Once again, Danny Driver works wonders on behalf of a good-cause composer.

 

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