Balakirev: Piano Works

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COMPOSERS: Balakirev
LABELS: Hyperion
WORKS: Piano Sonata in B flat minor; Mazurkas Nos 1 & 2; Nocturne No. 2 in B minor; Scherzo No. 1 in B minor; Valse-Caprice No. 2 in D flat; Waltz No. 4 in B flat; The Lark (after Glinka); Polka in F sharp minor
PERFORMER: Danny Driver (piano)

Piano Sonata in B flat minor, Scherzo in B minor, a Nocturne, Waltz and two Mazurkas: is this another Chopin disc, just too late for his bicentenary year? No, but Mily Balakirev’s debt to the Polish master is evident throughout this rewarding programme from Danny Driver, and not only for the forms and keys he used. Also a reminder that the musical world overlooked the centenary of the death of Balakirev (1837-1910), unofficial leader of ‘The Mighty Five’ group of Russian nationalist composers, Hyperion’s new release is full of music that mixes Chopinesque grace with Russian-bear grandiosity. Driver is the sort of pianist who can handle both, delivering performances of poise, power and no shortage of passion.
In a recital full of unusual repertoire – no sign here of Islamey, Balakirev’s most popular piano work – the closest point of contact between Balakirev and Chopin is the former’s Nocturne No. 2 in B minor. It quotes verbatim from the opening of Chopin’s Mazurka Op. 17 No. 2 (as demonstrated by their juxtaposition on Kevin Kenner’s fascinating new Chopin Resonances disc from Dux). Balakirev’s big and undeservedly neglected Sonata is more strikingly original, opening with a fugal treatment of a broad, folk-like tune. Showing how the Russians appropriated not only Polish land but musical styles too, Balakirev’s Mazurkas sound heavy-footed next to Chopin’s, yet they have an engaging freshness like everything else on this welcome recording. John Allison