Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Balakirev / Walker review – a master at work

27 April 2024

Nicholas Walker presents the second concert in his ‘Balakirev Day’ series at Wigmore Hall.

Wigmore Hall

Wigmore Hall (Photo: Kaupo Kikkas)

Arguably, no one knows the piano works of Mily Balakirev better than Nicholas Walker. Four years ago, he completed his six album set of recordings of the complete piano works – this in addition to his many live performances, recordings of the piano works of other composers (Beethoven in particular), teaching at The Royal Academy of Music, and a compositional oeuvre of his own. Saturday saw him give two concerts at Wigmore Hall, showcasing a selection of Balakirev’s original compositions and arrangements for the instrument, and attending at least one of these concerts (in this case, the second one) was an unmissable opportunity.

Although Balakirev’s musical education was steeped in the traditions of Western Europe, his close friendship with Mikhail Glinka, and the stirrings, at the time, of Russian Nationalism, drew him to the wide range of folk traditions of his own country. Wishing to promote these styles (and as a reaction to the works of more ‘Westernised’ contemporaries such as Tchaikovsky), he gathered together a group of similarly minded composers, and the group (Balakirev, Borodin, Cui, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov) became known as ‘The Five’, or ‘The Mighty Handful’. Balakirev’s music, then, while obviously part of the Romantic and chromatic canon of 19th century European music, is suffused with Russian character: in particular, we hear in it the little modal decorations of Arabic maqamat that come from the Islamic influence on the folk music of the Caucasus.

From the opening bars of the B-flat minor Piano Sonata (played, as were all the works in the concert, from memory), Walker’s impeccable technique was obvious: the tranquil fugue was given the sort of neutral delicacy with which Bach might be played, but the more flowery passages in the major key blossomed with an understanding of the rubato that needed to be applied for their character. The rhythm of the second movement’s Mazurka was given enough subtle attention to make it stand out from the rippling material around it, but without banging the message home, and the gradually applied intensity to the left-hand arpeggios in the third movement provided the perfect foil for the right-hand melody to create a superbly balanced structure. The final movement is swathed in Balakirev’s characteristic frills, and Walker’s precise touch ensured that each had character delineated by tempo and dynamic.

“…Walker delivered not only a textbook performance, but one that demonstrated a rigorously maintained familiarity…”

The 1901 Berceuse isn’t the simple cradlesong that these compositions often are; the central section suggests that the sleeping child has a bad dream, and the material here – almost a funeral march – becomes very heavy indeed, albeit that it soon wafts away to be replaced by a beautiful melody underscored by rocking arpeggios. Walker took all these mood swings in his stride to deliver a perfectly nuanced account.

The rumbling in the left hand and the power chords in the right hand leave you in no doubt that Reminiscences de l’opéra ‘La vie our le czar’ is a work inspired by theatrical drama (in this case, an opera by Glinka). A theme peeps out of the texture (picked out with subtle brilliance by Walker) that’s surprisingly similar to the ‘motto theme’ of Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony. All of Walker’s technique went into the latter part of the work: the solid chords had equally solid power behind them; the trembling balalaika imitations were unfalteringly exact; the busy ‘snowstorm’ figures in the right hand were well judged for placement and the raw fifth-y scraping of a folk violin shone through. Balakirev enjoys a coda, full of slightly comedic misdirection before landing on the tonic, and Walker’s timing, here, was perfect.

Balakirev’s arrangement of the Cavatina from Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 130 followed the interval, and the composer’s ingenuity and Walker’s immersion in the styles of both composers combined to produce a radiant account. A similar attention to the complexities of a ‘mixed style’ (in this case, the incorporation of Venetian fantasy) was brought to Gondellied to present a charming vignette whose adroitly managed changes in tempo conjured an air of wistful dreaminess.

The two ‘Orientalist’ pieces in the programme – Tamara and Islamey – were given with bravura and élan, the shifting images of each faultlessly captured in texture, tempo and dynamic. The latter piece is, of course, one of the great tests of a pianist’s mettle, and we need not have worried – Walker delivered not only a textbook performance, but one that demonstrated a rigorously maintained familiarity and a consummate understanding of the composer’s intention.

It is at this last observation, though, that there might be a small cavil: not at Walker, but at Balakirev himself. In the dances of ever-increasing speed and complexity towards the end of Tamara the composer seems to set himself an unsolvable simultaneous equation. They must whirl at breakneck speed – any slower and the drama will be lost (and Walker judged this with exactitude); but there are just (to quote a well-known play) ‘too many notes’ for each placement to get the attention it needs. Perhaps Balakirev intended a kind of frenetic sketchiness; who knows? But even from a master such as Walker, this is what you get.

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Balakirev / Walker review – a master at work