The Mighty Handful

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Balakirev,Borodin,Cui,Musorgsky,Rimsky-Korsakov
LABELS: Chandos
WORKS: Musorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition; Borodin: Petite Suite etc; Balakirev: Islamey; plus works by Cui & Rimsky-Korsakov
PERFORMER: Philip Edward Fisher (piano)

Collectively, the five composers who made up The Mighty Handful – Russian ‘nationalists’ who set out a very different stall to the Rubinstein brothers and Tchaikovsky – are not best known for their piano music, so this welcome new release achieves something rare in gathering together works by the whole quintet. Not that it consists entirely of rarities: Philip Edward Fisher opens with Musorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and closes with Balakirev’s Islamey, and both give him a chance to show off his virtuosity and assured technique. As usual, Musorgsky’s Suite sounds far more original and gripping without any intrusive orchestrations, and the Liszt-inspired Oriental Fantasy, as Balakirev’s work is subtitled, is excitingly done.
Still, the real interest here resides in the more modest works that come in between. The French-descended César Cui is represented by a Nocturne: though the composer was Polish-trained, this attractive piece sounds more like Tchaikovsky than Chopin. The Polish master’s influence is noticeable in Borodin’s Petite Suite, which includes two mazurkas, but Borodin is more distinctive in a light-fingered Scherzo. Rimsky-Korsakov could write demandingly for the piano – witness his Concerto in C sharp minor (see page 62) – yet is heard here in three delightful little pieces, a Scherzino, Romance and Waltz. This music may be light, but it stands up to repeated listening. John Allison