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The real interest lies in the thirty folksongs, his second set (published in 1898) where the mature composer, in love with and knowledgeable about his material, balances the demands of the 'peasant' and the 'academic'. The collection is varied, comprising dukhovnye (religious songs), byliny (epic-historical songs), wedding songs, khorovodyne (round dances) and protyazhnye (lyric songs). Having the songs rendered before the piano settings is actually quite exposing for a composer when you think about it, and it has to be said that Balakirev comes out of it well, allowing the harmony to develop from the modal monody of the songs, and when introducing chromaticism, making it decorative so that it does not detract. He also has an essential ability for folksong-setters, that of finding appropriate accompanimental figures but not allowing them to overshadow the song line.
Listening to these songs it is not hard to hear where much of the 'handful's' material grew from, the Mussorgskian quality of The Last Judgment
[listen track 8, 0:00-0:24 and track 9, 0:34-0:52]
is also strong in pieces like Mummy wasn't hoping
[listen track 37, 1:30-2:05].
The King's Sons from Kraków
[listen track 12, 0:16-0:32 and track 13, 1:11-1:47]
demonstrates that Balakirev was not out to smooth over irregular rhythms or phrase-lengths in the way that Rimsky or Tchaikovsky were prone to do, and There is a tree on a hill
[listen track 45, 0:34-0:53]
shows he was unafraid of a bit of pesante rawness to boot. But, when the music suits, he will write more pianistic figurations, as in Vasiliy Okulyevic
[listen track 21, 0:36-0:53],
or the full-on setting of Our wide street
[listen track 49, 0:20-0:37].
Nowhere, however, does he overdo it, and his settings convince one that his regard for the material was genuine and deep-felt.
Copyright © 31 October 2007
Paul Sarcich, London UK