15 July 2016

Eduardas Balsys: Violin Concerto No. 1

After a week flitting off to Yerevan, I am back in Europe, and back to blog. Today I saw a wonderful article by BBC Music Magazine on the wonderful conductor Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla. In it, a little side column shows four Lithuanian composers Mirga particularly appreciates, so my next four posts will discuss these figures! But today I need to discuss a composer I have been meaning to discuss for ages now, Eduardas Balsys. After weeks and weeks of having lessons in the room in academy dedicated to him, with his stern face staring at me and my compositions, I feel ashamed to not have mentioned him sooner. 

Eduardas Balsys (1919-1984) is an extremely significant figure in Lithuania as he, alongside Julius Juzeliunas, spearheaded Lithuanian music in the newly formed Soviet state; and came to particular prominence in the years of artistic resurgence after the passing of Joseph Stalin. This manifested itself in many different ways, either by being a popular proponent of 'Social Realism' with his works like 'March of Young Leninists' (1976). Or in the way he helped reopen explorations into modern musical languages like serial music or aleatoricism in works like 'Journey to Tilsit' (1980). He also constantly showed a desire to tap into local folklore and traditions like in his ballet 'Egle Queen of the Grass Snakes' (1960). Within all these areas Balsys managed to retain an elegance and sense of craft which is very apparent within his work, he is also an interesting example of how composers coped with the confines of Soviet censorship; as he was, like many others, able to sneak quite intense intellectual music under the radar of the regime. He also has the great accolade of being one of the most significant tutors within Lithuania's musical history, having taught many of Lithuania's leading composers today. 

Eduardas Balsys's violin concerto no. 1 (1954) is a curious work. In its three movements, the work manages to evoke many wonderful sensations, as well as starting off with moments of blaring dissonances. The work has many moments akin to Prokofiev, Bartok, but also many moments is very similar to Gustav Holst, which I think is probably the best composer to compare Balsys to for many reasons. Firstly the political influence in Holst's music meant he thrived on writing for amateurs and for the masses in his works for Brass Band, Wind Band, and Choir. Admittedly Balsys came about this less willingly, but the two came to similar results. On top of this, the two had a great desire to tap into folk traditions, with Holst reinvigorating British folk music and Balsys exploring his ancient folk melodies and themes. 

The first movement of Balsys's concerto is living and driving, starting with a bang, and profound procession, before the violinist goes for a run. The solo line is full of elegance, agility and grace. The soloist and orchestra fight it out for the entire movement, before eventually it seems the orchestra manage to subdue the soloist, even if only ever momentarily. 

The second movement starts with whispers and murmurs. The rolling chorale-like procession is lead by the clarinet which is mournful and sombre. The soloist enters with a beautifully melismatic line which rolls and sings so beautifully. Slow but surely the movement builds closer and closer to life, but still maintains a distinct sadness or nostalgia for something lost. 

The finale is a real showstopper. The music bounces and dances, the violinist navigates a really virtuosic solo line, but always holding importance over the orchestra. Despite being so virtuosic, the soloist lines always maintains a melodic nature, almost like how in the Brandenburg concerti how the soloists are melodic, but still extravagant. The nimble violin line keeps bouncing and the orchestra is equally agile throughout the movement. The rhythmic nuance is really elegant and the music is just damn fun to listen to. 

The concerto as a whole is marvelous, and it is a shock that it is not better known across the world. A part of me feels because Eduardas Balsys spent the majority of his working life on the other side of the Iron Curtain, he is simply ignored for being on the wrong side of the barrier. Too many composers are ignored and I feel gems like this show how nonsensical our ignorance of the music of former Soviet states is. 

Until next time, here is a glorious recording of Balsys's Violin Concerto No. 1 (1954)

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