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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Balakirev, Complete Piano Works 1, Nicholas Walker

Mili Alekseyevich Balakirev (1837-1910) in many ways set the tone for what Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, the impressionists, Rachmaninov, and Prokofiev were to create in later years, but his own music is not as nearly well-known as theirs. Yet there is vital music to be heard if you search for it. One good place to start is on Volume One of his Complete Piano Works (Grand Piano 636), newly recorded by pianist Nicholas Walker.

It has all the Piano Sonatas, very worthy music. What's especially nice is that it has the first and only recording of the original version of the Grand Sonate, op. 3, in the manuscript version rather than the published versions, which contained printer's errors.

In many ways all three sonatas were versions of each other, from the mighty op. 3 to the posthumously published 1905 sonata. All are in Bb minor and all three ambitiously strive to be the first true "Russian" sonata, with motives representing a wide sweep of Russian social-cultural history, stemming from a youthful desire to do a definitive Russian symphony that was thwarted by his own inexperience and by circumstance. The sonatas make up for that by being themselves first-rate.

What matters is that all three, especially as grouped together in this way, provide you with some of the most wonderful, cosmically romantic piano music you can hear anywhere, and of course it's all very Russian. Nicholas Walker gives us rousingly moving performances that bear up under close listening yet give you a widely brushed, dramatic largeness and a hushed suspended feeling alternatingly in the grand tradition.

As a confirmed Russophile I am very happy to have this volume. You will be, too, I think, if the music of this period gives you pleasure. It creates in me a deep respect for the Balakirev of the sonatas. He was a would-be titan and this lays it out for you to hear!

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