The Music of Eduardas Balsys

BALSYS: Violin Concerto No. 1.* Reflections of the Sea. Dramatic Frescoes *+ / *Džeraldas Bidva, vln; =Indrė Baikštyté, pno; Lithuanian National Symphony Orch.; Modestas Pitrėnas, cond / Ondine ODE 1358-2

Eduardas Balsys (1919-1984) was considered to be Lithuania’s greatest composer of the 20th century but, like so many Slavic composers from smaller countries, his work is scarcely known in the West. This disc presents three of his works written between 1954 (the Violin Concerto) and 1981 (Reflections of the Sea).

According to the booklet, the Violin Concerto (1954) was composed during the period when Balsys wrote in an essentially tonal style based on Classical and Romantic music with dramatic inflections. His music reminded me of some of Vaughan Williams’ Romantic-period works, but he definitely had his own voice.

The line for the violin is highly lyrical and definitely Slavic in nature. Balsys clearly knew how to construct fine lines and yet still impart some dramatic interest to his scores; although for my tastes the music is still too redolent of late Romanticism, he clearly knew how to create and release tension without straying too far from tonal harmony. The third movement is clearly based on folk music rhythms and possibly even on folk harmonies. Here, too, Balsys uses some very complex cross-rhythms and cross-voicing.

By contrast with the Violin Concerto, however, Reflections of the Sea (1981) is quite modern in harmony, a fascinating tone poem that does indeed morph into tonal territory but still has an undercurrent of portent about it. This is clearly a more modern side of Balsys, and I really liked it. I also wondered why Ondine didn’t lead off the CD with this, since it is clearly superior from start to finish over the Violin Concerto but, hey, no one ever went broke underestimating the tastes of the classical public. Tunes they want, tunes they get.

The CD closes out with Dramatic Frescoes (1965), another more modern piece by Balsys, in fact even more modern in harmony than Reflections. This also seems to be a violin concerto, although there are also prominent parts for the piano, and here Balsys also shows some real imagination in his orchestration, creating colorful swirls of sound not only in the upper range but also with the basses and celli.

I really liked the last two pieces on this CD, and in fact I’ve found other outstanding works by Balsys on YouTube, among them the Symphony-Concerto for Organ, Bass Guitar and Orchestra and the secular oratorio Nelieskite mėlyno gaublio, defined as “Lithuania’s answer to Stravinsky’s Les Noces and Orff’s Carmina Burana.” It, too, is a really cool piece, as is Portraits (1983), also for organ and orchestra, a musical tribute to three guys I’ve never heard of before, Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, Stasys Šimkus and Juozas Gruodis, so Balsys really was an excellent and original composer of whom the Violin Concerto is NOT typical or representative of his best work. But, as I said earlier, you can never go broke underestimating the tastes of the average classical listener.

Highly recommended for the last two works. Then go to YouTube and enjoy!

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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