For many listeners, the three big Russian piano concertos -- Tchaikovsky's first and Rachmaninoff's Second and Third -- are enough; some going a little deeper might locate the excellent piano of Alexander Scriabin and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's single-movement concerto. Far fewer listeners will realize that the leader of the "Mighty Handful," Mily Balakirev, composed three piano concertos, though anyone coming in contact with his flashy virtuoso concert piece Islamey will not fail to notice that Balakirev must have been an awesome pianist. Naxos' Balakirev: Piano Concertos draws all three of Balakirev's piano concertos together on disc for the first time, featuring young Ukrainian pianist Anastasia Seifetdinova and the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra.
Of the three concertos, the sharpest in a purely performance sense is the Piano Concerto No. 1 in F sharp minor; this work has been recorded a few times already and has the benefit of familiarity. This single-movement work served to some extent as the model for Rimsky-Korsakov's far better known Piano Concerto and Balakirev likewise suggested the theme that Rimsky-Korsakov used in that work. Whereas the Rimsky-Korsakov concerto is all of a piece and has a satisfying and fulfilling conclusion, its model seems to peter out after its 14 minutes and doesn't really raise the roof; it's almost like a movement from a concerto rather than a concerto itself. Balakirev may have seen fit to redress that balance with his Piano Concerto No. 2 in E flat, which is laid out in the standard three movements. However, Balakirev never played it, starting with the first movement in 1861, but did not add the second until 1906; the third movement was realized from detailed sketches and verbal instructions by Sergey Lyapunov after Balakirev's death. It is a wildly uneven work, with a so-so first movement; a second more interesting than the first that nonetheless loses its focus and a third that's terrific, embodying some of the best characteristics to be found in Balakirev.
This recording date was not the best in the history of the Russian Philharmonic, which is at its best in the first concerto, but a little loose and slipshod elsewhere. While soloist Anastasia Seifetdinova is a bit more on her game than the band, her playing style seems a bit incongruous with Balakirev's music; she has terrific technical ability, warmth, and a gracious, light touch, but there's a no real fire in her playing here, and those who know Islamey will note that fire in Balakirev's piano music is a required ingredient. The Grande Fantaisie sur airs nationals Russes is the biggest disappointment; this early Balakirev piece, written when he was only 14, had only enjoyed its first recorded performance on Toccata Classics very shortly before, and the Russian Philharmonic was also involved in that project. The Toccata Classics performance was lively, engaging, and dramatic; this Naxos performance is underpowered, a little too slowly played, flat, and undynamic. The only advantage to this disc -- and it is not an insignificant one -- over others representing this literature is that it brings all three of the works in Balakirev's piano and orchestra canon together, though the listener is probably better advised to seek them out in their separate entities.