Balakirev and Russian Folksong

0 of 5 stars

Grand Fantasia on Russian Folksong, Op.430 Songs of the Russian People

Joseph Banowetz (piano)

Russian Philharmonic Orchestra
Konstantin Krimets

Olga Kalugina (soprano), Svetlana Nikolayeva (mezzo-soprano), Pavel Kolgatin (tenor)

Joseph Banowetz & Alton Chung Ming (piano/four hands)

Reviewed by: Peter Joelson

Reviewed: November 2007
TOCC 0018
Duration: 79 minutes

The young Mily Balakirev (1837-1910) was brought up in the musical backwater of Nizhni-Nogorod where the Rivers Oka and Volga meet, the son of a minor civil servant who, though not keen for his son to pursue a career in music, allowed him to take piano lessons. Two major musical influences in Balakirev’s early years were the rich variety of folk-music in the town, music from many different regions as this was a major trading centre, and the good fortune of being taken under the wing of Alexander Dimitriyevich Ulybyshev (1794-1858) who welcomed him into his musical oasis. Ulybyshev, in addition to hosting musical evenings and writing the first biography in Russian of Mozart, owned an impressive library of musical scores to which he encouraged Balakirev to access, the boy teaching himself to compose by studying these scores, rather than having formal tuition.

The Grand Fantasia on Russian Folksongs was written in 1852, when Balakirev was just fourteen years old, and it shows a maturity of writing Mendelssohn had at the same age. He has the orchestra play a full part compared with contemporary works that used it merely for backing the flashy showpieces that were very popular at the time. He seems to have had the idea to continue the work into at least another movement but never returned to it, and the orchestral score has been reconstructed by John Norine, Jr.

This recording is a premiere. Influences on Balakirev at this time were Hummel and Henselt, Chopin and Schumann: wise choices from the selection of scores available to Balakirev. The piece begins quite simply, the first folk-tune stated by the orchestra then repeated by the piano with accompaniment, followed by Variations of increasing demands on the pianist’s technique. A second folk-tune undergoes much the same treatment and we get an impression of a phantom ‘third hand’ in some passages, a conceit possibly learned from Henselt. The piece ends peacefully, a hindrance perhaps when audiences crave a noisy and bravura firework-finish.

At sixteen years old Balakirev was sent to study Mathematics at Kazan’ University, two hundred miles away, an area rich with Tatar and other Muslim folk-music. He still hankered after a career in music and, in 1855, Ulybyshev again came to the rescue, took him to St Petersburg, and introduced him to Glinka, the happiest of outcomes for the young Mily … and the rest, as they say, is history.

Balakirev remained an enthusiastic collector of folk-tunes and folk-songs, embarking on long trips in the Summers of 1860 to 1863. His second collection of folk-song arrangements, the subject of this recording, was based on those collected by Dyutsh and Istomin and published by the Folk Song Commission of the Imperial Russian Geographical Society; they originate north of Lake Onega, two hundred miles from Petrozavodsk. The songs are in five groups: spiritual, epic, wedding, round-dance and lyric.

The programme is presented with each song sung, unaccompanied by a single voice in most instances, followed by Balakirev’s arrangement for piano, four hands. The sixty sections last about a minute each, and make an unusual yet very satisfactory recital. The singers’ voices are young and fresh, and the instrumental variations are simple and harmonised with great attention to the atmosphere of the original. The pieces are quite restrained, and not to be confused with the pyrotechnics of Balakirev’s own finger-twisting Islamey.

As Nicholas Walker points out in his excellent booklet note, which I have used as a source, it was Bartók who was next to produce such important work in the field of folk-music. There are no texts and translations; however, the exemplary booklet provides summarised texts of all thirty songs, which is just as helpful. With first-rate singing and playing and excellent recording, this disc contains an attention-grabbing recital lasting almost eighty minutes, and is a welcome addition to the growing catalogue of fascinating material to be found on Toccata Classics.

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