"His output, admittedly variable in quality...." With those frank words, the liner notes write off the mighty musical compositions of Mily Alexeyevich Balakirev. It is, unfortunately, also true. Even his best works -- the Symphony in C major and the symphonic poem Tamara -- have their structural flaws and his lesser works -- the too-early Overture to King Lear and the too-late Symphony in D minor -- have their formal mistakes. But in his best works, Balakirev's strength of will forces the music to succeed despite the C major Symphony's Allegro vivo's lack of a recapitulation and Tamara's endless languors. And even in his lesser works, Balakirev's powerful imagination, sensual energy, and strength of will makes the music work despite the D minor Symphony's Finale's interminable fanfares and the King Lear Overture's inexhaustible climaxes.
On this two-disc set by Vassily Sinaisky and the BBC Philharmonic recorded for Chandos in 1997 and 1998, Balakirev's orchestral music receives its most convincing performances since Evgeny Svetlanov's with the Philharmonia for Hyperion in 1991. Sinaisky's Balakirev is a full-blooded Balakirev, a massively powerful, easily excitable, and deeply moody Balakirev and the BBC Philharmonic delivers playing of brilliant colors, warm tones, and raw strength. While there have arguably been better performances of the First Symphony in the past -- Beecham's suavely sensual recording with the Royal Philharmonic, Karajan's supremely symphonic recording with the Philharmonia, and Svetlanov's histrionically passionate recording with the USSR Symphony Orchestra -- Sinaisky and the BBC still deliver a great performance, a performance spaciously conceived and grandly executed. In the Second Symphony and the other works in the set, the competition is sparser and Sinaisky and the BBC are as good as the best. Chandos' mature digital recordings are more subtle but just as dynamic as its earlier digital recordings.