Balakirev: Grand Fantasia on Russian Folksongs, Op. 4; 30 Songs of the Russian People

COMPOSERS: Balakirev
LABELS: Toccata
ALBUM TITLE: Balakirev
WORKS: Grand Fantasia on Russian Folksongs, Op. 4; 30 Songs of the Russian People
PERFORMER: Olga Kalugina (soprano), Svetlana Nikolayeva (mezzo-soprano), Pavel Kolgatin (tenor), Joseph Banowetz, Alton Chung Ming Chan (piano); Russian PO/Konstantin Krimets
CATALOGUE NO: TOCC 0018
This interestingly-planned and generously-filled disc spans Balakirev’s career, and his deep involvement with Russian folksong. The Grand Fantasia on Russian Folksongs, written in 1852, must be one of the first Russian compositions for piano and orchestra: Balakirev hadn’t even met Glinka yet and was just a 14-year-old in provincial Nizhni-Novgorod. This premiere recording reveals it as precocious and a little stiff formally, while stylistically it reminds one of Liszt and Chopin; yet it lays aside all virtuosity in its peacefully poetic ending – it was worth resurrecting.

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The 30 Songs of the Russian People, published in 1898, are late piano-duet arrangements of folksongs Balakirev had collected on the Volga and in the Caucasus in the 1860s. On the CD the duets are interleaved with unaccompanied singing of the original songs, a pleasing bit of programming that highlights Balakirev’s originality in his instrumental settings, eschewing the straitjacket of conventional tonic-dominant harmony and producing bare, modal effects that anticipate Bartók.

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Joseph Banowetz, taking the lion’s share of the piano playing, is a sympathetic interpreter both of Balakirev’s Romanticism and his proto-modernism, and is ably assisted by orchestra, singers, and duet partner Alton Chung Ming. The recording of the songs (in Moscow) is a little over-resonant, while the piano duets (in Texas) are noticeably dryer. But altogether this is a delightful disc. Calum MacDonald