Beecham and Balakireff’s First

“What, you’ve never heard it? It is a tremendous work, and the forerunner of so many things the public knows well. It is never played, but I promise you it is a very exciting score!”

– Maestro Thomas Beecham, to The Washington Post‘s critic Paul Hume in 1956, regarding Balakireff’s First Symphony

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That “flawed genius” Mily Balakireff was an influential composer, avid folk song collector, inspiring if despotic teacher and musical director who led the group of the Russian Five (or Mogutchaya Kutchka, meaning “Mighty Handful”). The other members of his circle of five were Rimsky-Korsakoff, Mussorgsky, Borodin and Cui. He is credited with driving them, as it were, on to uncharted shores to create memorable master-works of modern music, such as it was circa 1870.

Balakireff’s own music is characterised by a strong sense of Russian nationalism — a principled trait that he brandished in most arbitrary fashion at certain other Russian composers while excoriating them as pro-German cosmopolitans and “worshippers of Bellini and Meyerbeer”. A trained, though, to an extent, self-taught musician, he brought an audacious approach to composition, incorporating many innovative ideas, motifs of pan-Slavism, myriad colouring elements of Orientalism in all its barbaric splendour, and a plenteous measure of what the musicologist Solomon Volkov has called his “Caucasian enthusiasms”.

.Cossack Mamay (folk art)

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Balakireff commenced to write his First Symphony in 1864. Then, putting the half-done score altogether aside and otherwise composing intermittently, he toiled in quasi-Bukowskian obscurity as a minor functionary at a railroad company, before he was finally moved to complete it — more than thirty years later.

The symphony’s amiably discursive narrative, soulfully, songfully sprung of a remarkably inventive germination, may call to mind Russia’s literary realm — the stories of Gogol, shall we say. For the present listener, may the work prove the solace, cheer and illumination of many a Winter’s eve !

A Slavophil’s dream, exultant for strings, backed by a Sultan’s regiment of brass and drums, with woodwinds thrown in high relief to beckon us from Muscovy to Caucasus to Silk Road, the Symphony No. 1 in C is composed in four movements. In the unconventionally structured first movement, a nobly expansive Largo leads to the boldly expressive Allegro vivo — Alla breve — Più animato, richly elaborative of themes in the Russian idiom, and perfumes hinting of the East ; the second movement comprises an exotic Scherzo : perhaps conjuring impossible skies of a fantastical Peri-land, it is marked Vivo — Poco meno mosso — Tempo I — Coda. L’istesso tempo ; the third (featuring a gracefully rising phrase to which more than one hearer will compare a certain melody of Cole Porter) sings a languid Andante — Attacca il finale ; and the fourth proceeds from a buoyant and bustling Russian folk song to the rhythm of a polonaise, being marked Finale. Allegro moderato (Thème russe) — L’istesso tempo — Tempo di Polacca.

Despite having been neglected in the world’s concert halls for the past century, Balakireff’s First is reasonably well represented in the record catalogue, having been twice recorded by the British conductor Thomas Beecham, who was its spirited champion in the West ; also by Karajan with the Philharmonia in 1949 ; more recently by Kondrashin, Sinaisky and others ; and more than once under the baton of Svetlanov.

~Q~

In a highly regarded LP recording of the era circa 1960, Thomas Beecham conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in a reading of Balakireff’s First Symphony, expressing with well sprung rhythms, and telling tempi, the grand narrative flow of the work.  –

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