BALAKIREV: Piano Concerto No. 1 in F sharp minor, Op. 1. Piano Concerto No. 2 in E flat (completed by Lyapunov). Grand Fantaisie on Russian Folksongs, Op 4.
Anastasia Seifetdinova, pianist; Russian Philharmonic Orch/Dmitry Yablonsky, cond.
NAXOS 8570396 (B) TT: 69:44
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HAKOLA: Piano Concerto (1996). Sinfonietta (1999).
Hwnei Aifgdeissaon, piano; Tampere Philharmonic Orch/John Storgards, cond.
ONDINE ODE 1127 (F) TT: 70:27
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KYLLÖNEN: Symphony No. 1, Op. 8. Concerto for Accordion and Symphony Orchestra No. 1, Op.60. Lichtenthal Valley of Light, Op. 43. Concerto Grosso, Op. 65.
Matti Rantanen, accordion; St. Petersburg State Academic Capella Symphony Orch/Alexander Chernushenko, cond.
ALBA ABCD 256 (F) TT: 80:31
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BRITTEN: An American Overture. Ballad of Heroes. Diversions. The Building of the House. Praise We Great Men. Suite on English Folk Tunes. Canadian Carnival. Young Apollo. Quatre Chansons françaises. Scottish Ballad. Occasional Overture. Sinfonia da Requiem. Les Illuminations. Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. War Requiem. The Young Person's Guide to the Orcherstra. Russian Funeral.
Various artists/City of Birmingham Symphony Orch/Sir Simon Rattle, cond.
EMI CLASSICS 42743 (B) (5 disks) TT: 5 hours 37 min.
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TCHAIKOVSKY: Manfred Symphony, Op. 58. The Voyevoda, Op. 78.
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orch/Vasily Petrenko, cond.
NAXOS 8570568 (B) TT: 68:51
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Mily Balakirev (1837-1910) played an important part in the history of Russian music, mentoring Mussorgsky, Borodin, Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. His best work is found in his two symphonies and the amazing virtuoso piano work Islamey, a showpiece for pianists who try to prove they can play the impossible. This Naxos disk contains his works for piano and orchestra, Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 1 written in 1856 (actually only one movement—Balakirev never completed the work), Piano Concerto No. 2, composed in 1861 but never completed—a task accomplished by Lyapounov four decades later, and the Grande Fantasie on Russian Folksongs, Op. 4 written four years before Concerto No. 1. While the folksongs incorporated into the Grande Fantasie are considerable interest, both concertos have little to offer , rather like watered-down Chopin. Young pianist Anastasia Seifetdinova does everything that can be done with this music, with superb accompaniment directed by Dmitry Yablonsky, and audio quality is terrific.

Two works by Finnish composer Kimmo Hakola (b. 1958) are heard on an intriguing Ondine disk: the piano concerto written in 1996 commissioned for the Helsinki Festival, and Sinfonietta composed four years later. The 55-minute "concerto" actually is a 9 section work each of which has a title: Furioso, Capricci, Forza, Toccata, Fuoco, Cadenza, Maestoso, Triste, and Lux. It is perhaps the most violent work ever written for piano and orchestra, often brutal with smashing chords from the soloist assisted by heavy percussion. Lots of streaming arpeggios as well; this must be fantastically difficult to play, and I doubt very much any major pianist would wish to play it. In spite of its outrageous shock value, it ends gently and softly, all the more effective because of what preceded it. I will listen to it again, which I will not do with Sinfonietta which, as described in CD notes, is "a wounded, demented musical monster." Performances are excellent, and it is a tribute to them that they play this very difficult music so well. Recordings were made in December 2007 and engineer Enno Mäemets did a splendid job. Challenging listening, indeed.

Timo-Juhani Kyllönen (b. 1955) is another contemporary Finnish composer, identified on this Alba CD as "A Finnish Composer in St. Petersburg." In 1976, Kyllönen went to Moscow to study accordion, composition, and conducting, returning to Finland in 1986 where he was overlooked by a musical scene that preferred native avant-guard composers Magnus Lindberg and Kaija Saariajo.Very much unlike his compatriot Hakola, Kyllönen's credo is, "I believe that goodness holds the world together. This is why I seek beauty in the midst of chaos." Surely in his music on this CD we hear nothing that unpleasant, and often quite beautiful. However, Kyllönen's music is pedantic and doesn't have much to say. The 26-minute concerto for accordion is a valiant effort to write a major work for an instrument that basically does not produce sounds audiences wish to hear in the concerrt hall. And the 16-minute "symphonic poem" Valley of Light, inspired by a trip to Brazil, hardly suggests Brazilian rainforests in spite of including a few rather exotic percussion instruments. Villa-Lobos did it infinitely better. Excellent performances by the Russian orchestra, fine sonics as well, but this CD is of limited interest.

Almost a decade ago, this site covered a 2-CD EMI set of orchestral works of Benjamin Britten with Sir Simon Rattle conducting (REVIEW). Now, at an even lower price, we have both of these disks, plus three more featuring Les Illuminations, Serenade and Nocturne (all with tenor Ian Bostridge), the War Requiem (with Elisabeth Soderstrom, Robert Tear and Sir Thomas Allen) and The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. For the budget price we have given up all texts, and there is only minimal information on the music. If this doesn't matter to you, check this out - a very inexpensive, quality way to acquire a lot of Britten.

Manfred, Tchaikovsky's masterpiece based on the the life of Lord Byron, is one of my favorite works of the composer. It contains some of Tchaikovsky's most powerful music, and it is surprising that it isn't performed and recorded more often. Composed in 1885, it was written between symphonies 4 and 5 .I first heard it via the RCA Toscanini/NBC recording which is a spectacular performance, severely comprised by many major cuts, and of course the 1949 RCA sonics leave much to be desired Several years ago this site reviewed an excellent 2004 live performance with the London Philharmonic directed by Vladimir Jurowski (REVIEW). This now has strong competition from the new Naxos issue. Young conductor Vasily Petrenko is another conductor to watch judging by this stunning performance of Manfred. He captures all of the score's drama, and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic is in top form. Another plus is the sonic quality—state-of-the-art. Yet another plus is an equally vital performance of the lesser-known symphonic ballad The Voyevoda. Highly recommended! Let us hope Naxos will provide a complete Tchaikovsky symphony series with this brilliant maestro.

R.E.B. (March 2009)