Balakirev: Symphony No. 1 in C; Islamey (orch. Liapunov); Tamara

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COMPOSERS: Balakirev
LABELS: Naxos
WORKS: Symphony No. 1 in C; Islamey (orch. Liapunov); Tamara
PERFORMER: Russian State SO/Igor Golovschin
CATALOGUE NO: 8.550792 DDD
Balakirev outlived almost all the Russian nationalist school, which he virtually founded in the 1860s. His two symphonies (slightly past their sell-by date by the time they appeared) head a small but significant batch of orchestral works.

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One major reason to go for the first of these Naxos discs is Tamara, an immensely powerful symphonic poem steeped in alluring symbolism. The reading of Symphony No. 1 remarkably matches Beecham’s pioneering RPO version (still tempting on an EMI reissue). The old wizard even managed to capture the comparatively vibrato-free, Melodiya-style Russian wind playing, still amply evident here (my vote to the clarinets). The Russian orchestral sound, complete with brash brass, is still superb – though some of the poignancy has gone, regrettably.

Each disc is a pretty safe bet at this price, despite a few passing problems of balance and the occasional thinness which better equipment may magnify. Symphony No. 2’s Andante (unlike the plaintive First’s) is rather inflated: buy the second disc for the flamboyant Cossack scherzo (cf early Tchaikovsky) and swashbuckling final polonaise – a must for brass-banders. Russia, despite its Sibelius-like opening, soon acquires an agreeable Bizet-like naivety.

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The fine USSR – now Russian – State SO has been Svetlanov’s baby for over a quarter of a century. Svetlanov, with the Philharmonia on Hyperion, is the main rival. But Golovschin, his young number two, may just have the edge. Even in third gear, these Russian players would make of this music a melodious, joyous picnic. Roderic Dunnett