The fiery piano work Islamey and some orchestral pieces are all that is known of Russian composer Mily Balakirev in the West, but these Romances — short art songs with a personal, sometimes over-the-top romantic expression — are quite familiar in Russophone areas, even among general listeners. They date mostly from the very beginning and very end of Balakirev’s career, with the first of this two-disc U.S. release devoted to the former and the second to the latter. The style remains generally consistent throughout. Balakirev suffered a major breakdown in the 1870s, after which he became immersed in an idiosyncratic and fundamentalist brand of Orthodox worship, reportedly refusing to kill insects, even bedbugs. He returned to composing, but he was no longer in the forefront of Russian nationalism. The songs deserve to be better known, and this release, with ideal notes by accompanist Yuri Serov, makes a good introduction to them for the target non-Russian audience; the texts are given in transliterated Russian and English but not in the original Cyrillic alphabet. The poetry is of generally high quality, with Mikhail Lermontov and the “Russian Burns,” Alexey Koltsov, the most frequently represented. Most of it falls into clear stanzas, and the musical structures are correspondingly simple. But there’s a great variety of song types, and they suggest something of the essence of the approach of this self-trained composer, who tended to study the styles of other composers, domestic and foreign, and swallow them whole. Some of the songs, even those from Balakirev’s teenage years, reflect the composer’s attempt to write characteristically Russian music, while others are faithful renditions of the styles of Schubert, Schumann, and French models. There is a rich expressiveness to many of these songs, and the four singers, all graduates of the St. Petersburg or Odessa conservatories, are strong interpreters; baritone Alexander Gergalov is a real standout in his delightful control over the hints of Russian melodic contour that show up in many of the songs. An excellent effort from the innovative U.S. label Delos, and one that expands the vocal repertoire.
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