This Grand Piano CD is designated volume one of the complete piano works by Mili Balakirev performed by British pianist Nicholas Walker. The program contains three sonatas, coupling the familiar Sonata in B flat minor of 1905 with two early works from the composer’s late teens, his Sonata in B flat minor, Op. 3 ‘Grande Sonate’ and the Sonata in B flat minor, Op. 5 ‘Première Sonate. Yes, all three are in B flat minor and there is a good reason why.
As you listen to the album through, you may notice that several melodic themes from the three sonatas are quite similar. All three works share a common evolution; this fact is most apparent in the two early works, especially between movements two and three of the sonatas from 1855 and 1856. Balakirev had grand designs when he first started writing the, well, Grand Sonata of 1855. His desire was to create a work that would encapsulate all of Russia’s history – her culture, geographic characteristics and inhabitants. The two sonatas that followed the original 1855 version were reworkings of that composition and the deservedly well-loved Sonata of 1905 is its culmination. Still, the three sonatas differ significantly from one another, even in the number of movements, so don’t fear you’re getting the same work three times. Balakirev’s Sonata in B flat minor, Op. 3, appearing here as a premiere recording, is in five movements, however, Balakirev only completed the first 44 bars of the fifth movement, Epilogue: Fuga, which ends the sonata, and this CD, rather abruptly.
Balakirev’s brilliant piano music is infused with Russian folk tunes and demonstrates Lisztian leanings; it can be extremely challenging to performers, even the most accomplished players. It is always beautifully written for the instrument, taking advantage of its entire range and is lyrical, while often at the same time, quite percussive. There can be a taste of the Orient in Balakirev’s expressivity, especially in his melodic lines, which will sometimes merge Near-Eastern melodic qualities with Western harmonies.
Pianist Nicholas Walker is an authority on the music of Mili Balakirev, having been the organizer for the 2010 Balakirev Centenary concerts in London. He studied at the Royal Academy of Music, winning all of the major awards there and subsequently attended the Moscow Conservatoire. The sample in the sidebar is the second movement Mazurka of the beautiful 1905 Sonata.
Balakirev’s Sonata in B flat minor, Op 5 (1905) is the summit of his ambition to create a work that expresses the entire history of Russia. This highly original and most moving of all Russian Sonatas encapsulates all three Sonatas, having begun life as the Grande Sonate, Op 3 (1855), here recorded for the first time, subsequently becoming the First Sonata (1856). This recording of the Sonata, Op 5 is the first to have been made from the original manuscript, without the mistakes to be found in the two published scores.
Mily Alexeyevich Balakirev
Balakirev (1837-1910) was a Russian pianist, conductor and composer known today primarily for his work promoting musical nationalism and his encouragement of more famous Russian composers, notably Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. He began his career as a pivotal figure, extending the fusion of traditional folk music and experimental classical music practices begun by composer Mikhail Glinka. In the process, Balakirev developed musical patterns that could express overt nationalistic feeling. After a nervous breakdown and consequential sabbatical, he returned to classical music but did not wield the same level of influence as before.
Nicholas Walker, described by the BBC Music Magazine as possessing “the flair of a full-scale virtuoso and a sparkling intelligence”, studied at the Royal Academy of Music and at the Moscow Conservatoire.
“a prodigy of awesome technical fluency backed by exceptional artistry”