For many years, Balakirev was a historical footnote for me; I knew of him solely through reading about Rimsky, Borodin, Mussorgsky, etc., and didn't think very highly of him. Then one day, when driving around in Chicago, the local classical station played a piece that opened with the most expansive, Slavic theme--very Romantic, but not so much melancholy as endearing and cheerful. I was captivated. The movement continued in a very Russian Five type vein, but it was beautifully orchestrated and sounded like a more Nationalist composer's take on Tchaikovsky's "Little Russian" symphony. After the first movement the symphony launched into a rambunctious, and utterly divine scherzo--with a great stamping rhythm which seemed more robust than most Romantic Russian pieces I was familiar with.
Long story short, I listened to the entire piece spellbound, only to learn it was Balakirev's Second (!) Symphony. I barely knew he wrote one. This is the version I ran out and bought at Tower Records a day later. And now, many years later, this version, by Golovschin, remains my favorite version, for its slightly raw, but affectionate take on the symphony. It's a first-rate piece, in my opinion, and every bit as good as his extremely durable (but slightly less melodic) First Symphony. The Second Symphony was put aside when Balakirev became hyper-religious in true Russian fashion (Gogol, Tolstoy, etc.); many years later he returned, using discarded material from the First Symphony (the scherzo) to complete it. I've read Rimsky's disparaging remarks about the work, which is a shame, since it is cut from the same cloth as Rimsky's colorful works (but is far superior to any of his symphonies--save maybe "Antar"). The work is full of warmth, personality, and more cheerfulness than you would expect from a Russian symphony--perhaps accounting for its lack of appeal? The scherzo is the highlight, one of Balakriev's greatest inspirations; but also noteworthy is the glorious opening theme of the first movement, which is a keeper. The slow movement betrays Balakirev letting his hair down a little, since he is famous for warning his pupils not to write sentimental melodies in their works. Here, he simply writes beautiful music. The finale is fun and propulsive, but perhaps the least successful movement of the work; nevertheless, it works fine, and is played with spirit by the Moscow SO.
The big surprise is the tone poem Russia (or Rus), which is a major work. It's full of folk song quotations, but woven into the orchestral texture quite remarkably--chiefly through his adroit orchestrations. I almost like "Rus" more than the Second Symphony, though both betray a high level of inspiration.
This disc is a real find, and it's a great companion piece to the other Balakirev release by Naxos with Symphony No.1, his masterpiece, Tamara, and Lyapunov's orchestration of Islamey (which is superb). The only thing lacking from Naxos are some other overtures--In Bohemia, King Lear, and the Spanish Overtures (which were all recorded by Marco Polo, so where is the reissue)?