Sunday, 11 September 2011

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, September 2011)

Hyperion 67806 / *****

Piano virtuosos and fanciers will always be grateful to Russian nationalist composer Mily Balakirev (1837-1910) for his Islamey oriental fantasy, one of the repertory’s most daunting showpieces. This recital reveals a fuller picture of Balakirev’s output which includes a Sonata in B flat minor in four movements. Unusually it begins with a fugue, so artfully disguised that its academic origins become obscured. A mazurka and nocturne-like Intermezzo then gives way to a coruscating finale with Islamey-like flashes of brilliance, but it surprisingly closes on a quiet note. Is this a sublime or fatally flawed resolution? Young British pianist Danny Driver’s elegant touch persuades the listener it’s the former.

Balakirev was a devotee of Chopin and his shorter pieces owe that debt of influence, with a selection of Mazurkas, a Nocturne, Waltz and Scherzo also included. He does not slavishly ape the Pole’s manner but instead weaves in his own home-spun Russian stylings. This is most evident in his famous transcription of Mikhail Glinka’s The Lark, a folksong so wondrously embellished as to be almost an original work. Here is a vista of the much-vaunted Russian piano tradition that deserves to be better known.

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