Monday, March 14, 2011

Balakirev's First Symphony in C Major

Yesterday, I was hearing Balakirev's First Symphony in C Major performed by the USSR Symphony under Yevgeni Svetlanov.This 1971 recording rarely finds an able competitor in its nationalist reading by Svetlanov. We have Sir Thomas Beecham with the Royal Philharmonic and Herbert Von Karajan with the Philharmonia Orchestra of London giving superb performances of this symphony but Svetlanov goes beyond them. His reading is strong, ferocious and aggressive.
Mily Alexeyevich Balakirev was born into a poor clerk's family in Novgorod in 1837. He received his first lessons in music from his mother at the age of four. Balakirev's musical talents found a patron later in a nobleman, Alexander Oulibichev who had also written a biography of Wolfgang Mozart. Balakirev was first exposed to the music of Glinka, John Field and Chopin. Glinka encouraged Balakirev to pursue a career in music. Balakirev, after Glinka, is regarded as one of the 'Five' nationalist composers in Russia, the other four being Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Borodin and Cesar Cui.
Balakirev started his first symphony in C major in 1867 but completed it in 1898 when it received its first performance. He incorporated a new Russian element in his expression somewhat religious in nature in the opening Adagio of this symphony. He places a lively scherzo and trio as the second movement that is followed by a beautiful sentimental melody in the slow movement with a characteristic fluidity to the flute and woodwinds and a Slavic occidental raspiness to the brass. This is very well brought out by the USSR Symphony under Svetlanov. The finale is a compendium of merry folk themes. At one point, you could hear the brass laughing when the symphony ends on a jubilant note. This is an excellent orchestral work by Balakirev and could be regarded as one of the cracker first symphonies to be written anywhere.

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