This is actually a very fine release, able, I think, to compete even with the Svetlanov recordings of the symphony. Igor Golovschin directs his old band, and gives us a clear, no-fuss, classically informed performance; it doesn't miss out on some of the more gripping drama of this music, either, however. The symphony itself belongs firmly to the Russian romantic tradition, cast in four movements (with the scherzo placed second); it is relatively ambitious in scope but Balakirev actually manages to pull of a work that doesn't really have any dull moments. Stylistically it isn't too far away from the Borodin symphonies, is heavily influenced by folk music and is stronger on atmosphere (and orchestration) than on thematic development, but the ideas themselves are actually pretty interesting, and in particular the first movement is stirring. The whole work is no masterpiece, perhaps, but a really good work, very convincingly realized here.
The piano work Islamey is one of Balakirev's most famous works; a striking, exotic-sounding and very effective work. It is given here in its orchestration by Lyapunov, which works rather well, but lacks the brilliance and some of the excitement of the piano original. The symphonic poem Tamara, however, is a masterpiece. Based on a Lermontov ballad, it opens and ends with slow, subdued and atmospheric depictions of the river Terek, rather ominously hinting at the themes to be used in the main body of the work, among them the two memorable, alluring love themes which are developed into a powerful climax. The work is also splendidly scored, and stands - I think - as one of the most striking symphonic poems of Russian Romanticism.
As they are in symphonies, Golovschin and the Russian State Symphony's performances are very convincing in the tone poems, and the recording is quite good as well. A very welcome release, this one, and one that can be strongly recommended. It does perhaps not wipe out memories of Svetlanov in these works, performances that are fiercer and more red-blooded, but not necessarily superior to Golovschin's more balanced and lyrical approach.