Damian Thompson

Why did Balakirev’s beautiful, inventive works go out of fashion?

Nicholas Walker's new six-CD cycle of the complete piano works of the eccentric Russian composer are a revelation

Why did Balakirev's beautiful, inventive works go out of fashion?
Composers Alexander Glazunov and Mily Balakirev. Photo: Fine Art Images / Heritage Images / Getty Images
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Anyone who invited the Russian composer Mily Balakirev to dinner had to be jolly careful about the fish they served. How had it died? Balakirev — mentor of Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov and regarded as the founder of the Russian nationalist school of music — would want to know. If the fish had perished on a hook, then he wouldn’t touch it. But if it had been clubbed on the head, fine.

The many eccentricities of Balakirev (1837–1910) were regarded with amusement, horror and dismay by his contemporaries. Though, to be fair, the fish thing wasn’t a mad obsession of his own. Formerly an atheist, in his thirties he converted to an ultra-strict Russian Orthodox sect with firm views on the proper way to kill fish. Unfortunately this wasn’t the only subject on which it was inflexible. It was anti-Semitic even by the standards of Tsarist Russia, which is saying something. And Balakirev outdid even his own clergy with his ranting about ‘Christ-killers’. So, no Jews at the dinner party — or anyone the composer suspected of being Jewish simply because they disagreed with his musical opinions.

That last detail is significant. Balakirev suffered from paranoia exacerbated by a midlife nervous breakdown from which he never really recovered. It was a wretched blight on an astonishing career. He studied mathematics at university, not music, but eventually acquired such a mastery of musical theory that in 1881 he was offered the directorship of the Moscow Conservatory. He turned it down, preferring his own Free School where composers were encouraged to develop an ‘oriental’ style.

Balakirev loved the ‘savage tribes’ of the Caucasus and once spent five weeks there in a monastery of fire-worshippers. He was the first major Russian composer to borrow heavily from ethnic traditions and, in doing so, changed the course of his country’s musical history. Yet his own works, serenely beautiful as well as restlessly inventive, went out of fashion during his lifetime and are now mostly museum pieces. Why?

As a symphonist Balakirev can’t compete with Tchaikovsky, but that’s true of every other 19th-century Russian composer. Nor did he possess the freakish and fractured genius of Mussorgsky. He wasn’t a ‘master of orchestral colour’ like Rimsky-Korsakov, but I don’t hold that against him. Masters of orchestral colour can drive me up the wall with their showing off: I was glad to read Robert Layton describe Balakirev’s symphonic poem Tamara as ‘an infinitely more subtle piece than that familiar warhorse Scheherazade’.

That devastating mental breakdown, about which we don’t know much, did a lot of damage. Balakirev lost all interest in music, took a job as a railway clerk, and when he started composing again committed the same crime as one of my favourite composers, the prolific and bloody-minded English symphonist Havergal Brian. He ignored recent stylistic ‘advances’ and instead concentrated on saying fascinating things in the musical language he’d adopted decades earlier.

Balakirev was above all a composer for the piano, with a habit of incorporating finger-busting polyphonic complexities into pieces that, judged simply by their melodies, often carried a whiff of the salon. But they are rarely heard because there’s no point in attempting them without a transcendental technique.

All that survives in the mainstream repertoire is Balakirev’s glorious ‘oriental fantasy’ Islamey, often described as the most difficult piano piece ever written; even today, the chances of hearing a note-perfect live performance are pretty slim, unless the pianist indulges in what’s called ‘emergency rubato’. But it faces stiff competition from other Balakirev pieces. For example his giant Piano Sonata, bursting with melody, distributes polyrhythms not just between the hands but also between the fingers of one hand. Anybody attempting to record Balakirev’s complete piano music, taking up six CDs, will have to sweat blood for years. The American Alexander Paley attempted it and at times it sounds as if he’s clubbing a fish to death.

Enter Nicholas Walker, a self-effacing teacher at the Royal Academy of Music whose virtuosity and profound grasp of musical structure has been a mysteriously well-kept secret. He has just completed a Balakirev cycle for the Grand Piano label that has to be heard to be believed: I almost want to see video proof that there aren’t three hands on the keyboard in the Reminiscences of Glinka’s ‘A Life for the Tsar’. The set is more complete than Paley’s, infinitely better played and includes Walker’s own magical transcription of Tamara.

Balakirev isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and it’s startling to discover how insistently certain ‘experts’ on his piano music have disparaged it over the years. I was puzzled by the mismatch between their patronising verdicts and the revelations on these new recordings — and then I realised that, like the critics who sniggered at Brian’s symphonies on the basis of LPs featuring the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra, they’d never heard a decent performance of the works they were judging.

Now they have no such excuse. That isn’t to say that Balakirev should suddenly be catapulted into a musical pantheon; his output is uneven, often nearly as difficult to grasp on first hearing as it is to perform, and it will take time to evaluate his stature. But there’s no doubt in my mind that Nicholas Walker has finally emerged as one of Britain’s greatest pianists.