Balakirev Piano Sonata no. 2

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Mily Balakirev (1836-1910) was probably one of the most influential figures in Russian music’s history. He was the only professionally trained musician out of The Mighty Handful, and as a composer, pianist of the first rank, conductor, leader and educator, he had far-reaching effects on the developments of Russian music. As a composer, he wrote over two hundred instrumental works for orchestra, piano and chamber ensemble, with the majority written for the piano.

Despite these influences and compositions, somehow he was unable to parlay his talent to the body of literature we hear today. His most recognised piano work Islamey is often played as an encore to highlight the performer’s virtuosity rather than being considered in a serious recital program. One reason may be because of his influence as a mentor and the leader of The Mighty Handful overshadowed his input in composition. Furthermore, it was the last twelve years of his life that Balakirev was psychologically and emotionally able to entirely devote himself to composing after recovering from depression; perhaps the reason why he was not acknowledged for his composition in early years of his life.

Sonata no. 2 was the very product from his last twelve years, and this is Balakirev’s longest and most important work for the piano in terms of demonstrating his musical language and its relation to expression. This sonata was actually his third sonata, but because his second sonata was the first to be published, we now regard it as his second published sonata. Balakirev left many of his compositions as sketches and completed them many years later.

This sonata displayed a remarkable unity of design coupled with a diversity of treatment in each movement. The first movement begins with a fugue which is quite radical. Even Beethoven never wrote a sonata beginning with a fugue, but only included in the last movement in his Hammerklavier sonata. The essence of Balakirev’s musical thought is epitomised in the first movement, while his facility for writing exuberant dance variation is exhibited in the second movement. With the third movement’s serene quality of lucid contemplation prevailing throughout, a contrasting effect is achieved by employing a dramatic build up towards a rhythmic climax in the finale.

Some of the best qualities of Balakirev’s pianistic genre can be found in this sonata. Furthermore, by virtue of this piece, we can observe that the piano was Balakirev’s favourite instrument, and how this sonata seems to be the very embodiment of his musical personality.

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