Mily Balakirev, who lived from 1837 to 1910, remains one of those composers known more widely for their influence on their colleagues than for their own music. In his case the influence was exceptionally productive: He was the acknowledged leader of the group known as "The Five" (its other members being Borodin, Cui, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov); Tchaikovsky not only acted on Balakirev's suggestions in choosing new projects, but submitted his scores to him for criticism; many of his pupils and disciples became major contributors to the treasury of Russian music.
Far from being familir with Balakirev's music, most of us can't even pronounce his name with assurance (the accent goes on the second syliable). His piano fantasy Islamey is performed now and then, both in its original form and in orchestral transcriptions by Alfredo Casella and others. His tone peom "Tamara," used to be heard a bit, but no one bothers with it now. His real masterwork, surely, is the Symphony No. 1 in C, a work so rich in haunting tunes and gorgeous colors as to make one all but forget about Rimsky's "Scheherazade" - but even this is something we hear only on records, never in our concert halls. (Sir Thomas Beecham, a year before his death, described his recording of this work as his current favorite among his own recordings - and no wonder, for it brought out the very best in him and his splendid orchestra.)
Fortunately, we do have Beecham's marvelous performance of the First Symphony (Seraphim S-60062) and also an interesting account of the work by Yevgeny Svetlanov and the U.S.S.R. Symphony/Orchestra (Melodiya/Angel SR-40272), as well as Ernest Ansermet's evocative realization of "Tamara" (London STS-15066). Even the Second Piano Concerto is on records now (Michael Ponti the solist, Siegfried Landau conducting, on Turnabout QTV 34645), and the Second Symphony has just arrived, unexpectedly but delightfully, in a handsome performance by the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra under Gennady Rozhdestvensky (Columbia M 35155).
Balakirev did not produce a great quantity of music. His other activities, his perfectionism and his largely unsuccessful battles with depression combined to keep him from being fastworking or prolific. His intermittent work on the First Symphony actually covered a period of 35 years. The Second was produced in the relatively brief space of eight years and was performed in 1909, a year before Balakirev's death. There cannot have been many performances of the work since then, or many people who were even aware of its existence; it is a very worthwhile discovery, even if far less remarkable than its predecessor.
There are apparent echoes of the First in portions of the Second, and the scherzo happens to be a piece Balakirev had sketched decades earlier, originally intending to use it in the First. It is based on a jolly folk-song about the coming of spring, and is surely the strongest section of the work. (Philip Ramey, in his record note, quotes one of Balakirev's biographers as suggesting that the composer might have felt that "this excellent flight of his youthful imagination was worthy of having a symphony composed around it.") But the other three movements are by no means disappointing, all exhibiting the same degree of craft, if not quite the same degree of inspiration, that when into the making of the First Symphony. (One surprise is in the form of an apparent allusion to the Tchaikovsky Fourth for a fleeting moment in the middle of the final movement), and Rozhdestvensky has given us perhaps the finest of all his recorded performances, responding with the sort of enthusiasm and imagination Beecham lavished on the First.
By way of filler, there is the brief and colorful "Cortege solennel," Op. 91, of Glazunove, who as a teen-ager was Balakirev's pupil until the latter persuaded Rimsky-Korsakov to undertake his artistic guidance. This is,in fact, the same performance that has been around for a few years as part of Rozhdestvensky's Glazunov collection, Melodiya/Angel SR-40225, but Columbia has done a better job in processing the Melodiya tape. This disc as a whole is one of the best-sounding orchestral releases from the Russian source to appear on any domestic label.