0 of 5 stars

Piano Concerto No.1 in F sharp minor, Op.1
Symphony No.1 in C

Oleg Marshev (piano)

Aarhus Symphony Orchestra
James Loughran

Recorded on 18 September 2002 and between 3-7 November 2003 in Frichsparken, Aarhus, Denmark

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: December 2005
Duration: 79 minutes

This attractive disc includes Balakirev’s first published work, his most popular symphonic poem, and the First Symphony, the latter work which occupied Balakirev on and off for 33 years, but little evidence of that struggle is found in the music.

James Loughran brings out the fresh vitality of the score, and with the impression that the Aarhus musicians are fully inside this music. The Andante finds Loughran successfully drawing parallels with the end of Tamara, with a wonderful clarinet solo toward the close. The slow introduction to the first movement has a Baroque-like tread, which is brushed aside when the brightly spirited Allegro asserts itself, with a particularly full-blooded tutti at the close. In the scherzo Loughran brings out the ‘Polovtsian’ elements to the melody in this otherwise Mendelssohn-like movement, the music scurrying lightly on its feet with enjoyable interplay between strings and winds. The latter excel in the distinct definition of the finale, helping secure this recording of Balakirev’s symphony as a most competitive version.

The C major tonality of the symphony comes as something of a surprise after the wide-eyed F sharp with which the exuberant Opus 1 Piano Concerto ends. Here Oleg Marshev is the athletic soloist; his sparkling descents in the ‘cantabile’ section are a highlight and Loughran’s forward-moving tempos maintain coherence. The mysterious opening on timpani against the ambiguous harmonic language reminds just how advanced this piece of juvenilia really is, Balakirev’s invention defying his 18 years. A reverberant recording only occasionally mars some of the piano detail.

The generous line-up is completed by a recording of Tamara that needs a high volume setting to secure the murky lower string lines at the outset, Balakirev’s tricky opening once again well paced by Loughran, who handles the gradual heightening of intensity with a careful arm. When repose comes it is with a tinge of sadness, an ill-fated traveller borne away by a river’s current, and the lightly pulsing woodwinds of the Aarhus Symphony capture this ebb perfectly.

A very enjoyable release, then, and an ideal point for anyone wishing to dip into Balakirev’s orchestral music for the first time.

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