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Naturally, I jumped at the chance to listen to
“Balakirev: Complete Piano Works,” performed by
Alexander Paley (1956 – ). It’s a six-CD set, and
released as part of the Brilliant Classics Piano Library.
Until then, my exposure to his piano pieces was limited
to “Islamey,” which is known as one of the more
technically challenging works in the standard piano
repertoire.

As the philosophical/ideological leader of the
“mighty handful,” as these composers were known
throughout Russia, Mily Balakirev (1837-1910) was
also a formidable pianist. In fact, he was known as
the greatest composer/pianist of the Russian
national school of the 19th Century. Anton Rubinstein
(1829-1894) was more famous as a pianist, but it was
felt that his music reflected Western European styles,
and didn’t sound as “Russian.” Other composers in this
famed group included César Cui (1835-1918), Alexander
Borodin (1833-1887), Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
(1844-1908), and Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881).

While containing touches of Russian folklore, this music
often used conventional forms popularized by Balakirev
and Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849), including the Nocturne,
the Mazurka, the Waltz, and the Scherzo. Although known
as Polish, Balakirev considered Chopin to be a Russian
composer, as Poland was a part of Russia when Chopin
was born, and elements of the Polish culture “bled”
into Russian music.

As expected, these pieces vary in quality and many of
them are salon fare. However, the “Sonata in B Flat
Minor” from 1905, the three “Scherzi” as well as
Balakirev’s transcriptions and arrangements of the
works of others are first rate. There’s certainly more
to Balakirev than “Islamey!”

Pianist Alexander Paley’s notes in the accompanying
booklet were brutally honest, which was surprising.
It’s been my experience when listening and reading
liner note booklets that artists normally embark on
large projects out of a particular love or “connection”
with the music. To hear Paley tell it, Balakirev would
often seem to be a third-rate hack! How else can I
explain his comments which referred to some of the
pieces as “ . . . music about nothing – just junk” or
“Absolutely mediocre!” Although the aforementioned
variance in quality is evident, that occurs with just
about any “complete” artist’s oeuvre, and I found
Paley’s comments to be a bit harsh. Nevertheless,
I suppose it’s good to have an honest opinion,
especially from the performer!

Overall, I’d say that the music on these six discs was
quite enjoyable and worthwhile, especially from a
musicological standpoint, and Paley played them
wonderfully.

One word about the “completeness” of this set.
According to The Da Capo Catalog of Classical Music
Compositions
by Jerzy Chwialkowski, there were
numerous arrangements by Balakirev of the works
of other composers that were omitted from this set.
In fact, his “Impromptu in F Minor,” which was written
between 1850 and 1860 was also omitted. In the past,
I’ve encountered omissions where so-called “complete”
sets of a genre by a given composer are concerned.
Anyway, I suppose this set is “complete” enough for
most consumers! It’s definitely worth checking out,
particularly for pianophiles.

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