March 12, 2009


Balakirev: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; Grande Fantasie on Russian Folksongs. Anastasia Seifetdinova, piano; Russian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Dmitry Yablonsky. Naxos. $8.99.

Janáček: Orchestral Suites from the Operas, Volume 1—Jenůfa; The Excursions of Mr. Brouček. New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Peter Breiner. Naxos. $8.99.

     The works on these CDs are unlikely to be familiar to most listeners – and that is a good thing, since they provide both enjoyment and insight into some composers whose music is less often played than it deserves to be. Mily Balakirev (1837-1910), leader of the Mighty Five (or Mighty Handful) of Russian nationalistic composers in the 19th century, wrote a relatively small number of works and often did not complete them until decades after he started them. His ideas about nationalism, and his specific musical themes, often found their way into the works of Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov and others, but he did not end up getting much credit for them – because it often took him so long to bring them to fruition. Balakirev was a fine pianist, and his two piano concertos provide interesting insight into his thinking both in terms of folk themes and in the matter of pianism. The first concerto, written in 1855-6 and published as his Op. 1, is in a single movement in the style of Liszt, but its themes and their working-out are more reminiscent of Chopin, who clearly influenced Balakirev’s style. And this was not Balakirev’s first work for piano and orchestra: the Grande Fantasie on Russian Folksongs dates to 1852, although it was published as Op. 4. This is an interestingly designed work, not intended as a bravura piece so much as an exploration of the folk tunes at its heart – it does not end in a great climax or provide any spectacular virtuoso passages, although there is a good deal of arpeggio. As for Piano Concerto No. 2, it is a classic case of Balakirev’s delayed-completion syndrome: the first movement dates to 1861-2, but he did not add the second until 1906, and it was left to fellow composer Sergey Lyapunov to complete and orchestrate the finale along lines specified by Balakirev – the work was not finished until 1910 and was published posthumously. Yet despite this exceptionally long gestation period, the concerto hangs together rather well, with the second movement’s coda and the conclusion of the third movement both referring back to material from the work’s opening. The heart of this concerto is its lovely Adagio, in which a chant from the Russian Orthodox Requiem is extensively developed. Anastasia Seifetdinova plays all these Balakirev pieces attractively, and the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra under Dmitry Yablonsky provides excellent support in a CD that may well make listeners go looking for additional music by this less-known Russian master.

     The nine operas of Leoš Janáček cannot be said to be unknown nowadays, although not all of them are performed very often. However, it is safe to say that listeners will not have heard the orchestral suites from Jenůfa and The Excursions of Mr. Brouček before listening to Naxos’ new CD, since they were created by Peter Breiner and are recorded here for the first time. Listeners familiar with the operas will be able to trace the plots through these suites, which follow the operas’ dramatic sequences in the order in which they occur. But the music, especially that of Jenůfa, is highly effective even if one does not know the opera. The darkness and family tragedy of Jenůfa come through effectively as the music opens and closes with a representation of the sound of the mill that is central to the action (Jenůfa’s stepmother drowns the young woman’s illegitimate child in the millstream). Janáček’s skillful use of Moravian folk music helps anchor the story geographically, and a series of ominous foreshadowings makes it clear that all is not well even in the more upbeat passages. The Excursions of Mr. Brouček is not as well known an opera, and its music is less interesting. This is a comedy about a rather unappealing central character who journeys first to the moon and later back in time to the 15th century. The most interesting parts of the Breiner-arranged suite are the central movement (“Waltzes and Other Dances”), which includes a particularly well-formed waltz, and the fifth and last movement (“Those Who Are the Warriors of God”), one of whose primary themes is the same Hussite chorale used so effectively by Smetana in Má vlast and by Dvořák in his Hussite Overture. The New Zealand Symphony handles Janáček’s tunes and rhythms with considerable skill, although its sound is thinner than that of Central European orchestras. Like the Balakirev CD, this one of Janáček’s music presents an unusual opportunity to hear less-familiar but very worthy works in performances that, if not always elegant, are highly satisfying throughout.

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