Mily Balakirev - Islamey
for Chamber Orchestra
Mily Balakirev (1837-1910) was one of the key figures in the 19th century emerging movement of Russian nationalism. As the prime motivator in the so-called ‘Mighty Handful’, he was influential in conducting the new works of Borodin, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Cui, as well as his own. His most famous piece is the virtuoso piano composition Islamey.
Written in September 1869, Islamey is based on two folk themes. The first is a quick dance-tune from the Caucasus in southern Russia, and is full of energy and rapid repeated notes. This theme governs the whole of the first section of the piece, and much of the third. As a contrast, the middle section uses a love song from the Crimea, in southern Ukraine. This Romantic melody is transformed into a lively Trepak dance towards the end of the work.
As a piano showpiece, Islamey is legendary for its technical difficulties, and quickly became a warhorse for all virtuosi. Although the subtitle ‘Oriental Fantasy’ is misleading in this decidedly Russian work, it displays Balakirev’s original and highly influential brand of Russian exoticism, so apparent in such later works as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade and Borodin’s Prince Igor. Too often heard as a brittle, vacuous display piece, this orchestration of Islamey aims to keep the virtuoso nature of the work, but fill it with a folk-like Russian colour, and a positive nationalist pride.