Borodin (1833-87) - Overture: Prince Igor
Borodin had trouble finishing anything. Unlike Liadov, whose natural laziness
inclined him to miniaturism, Borodin was simply too busy, considering his
scientific work of prime importance, even fearing that "by concentrating
too much on music I might discredit that work". But he was brimming with
ideas, as witness the astonishing diversity of the music (often bearing
the legend normally reserved for his Third Symphony) that he left
scattered in his wake.
and most significant work, the opera Prince Igor, based on "The
Story of the Expedition of Igor" suggested to him in 1869 by Vladimir Stassov,
lay incomplete at his death all of nine years later. The subject had afforded
a golden opportunity to contrast the musical style of Russia with that
of the East, although I am less than sure that I can detect that contrast
within the fabric of the Overture alone. It would in any case be
more evident to Borodin's fellow Russians than to us - from our foreign
perspective it is a bit like comparing the styles of Germany v. Turkey
hand of Rimsky-Korsakov, who subsequently produced an edition with the
help of Glazunov, is nowhere more obvious than in the contrast between
the oft-paired Overture and Polovtsian Dances. The latter
are altogether more brilliantly coloured and more sheerly visceral than
the former. The overture, almost "pure" Borodin, gains from the structural
angle. It is, to misquote Sibelius, a "Fantasia, quasi una Sonata" whose
opening stillness is broken by a delicious antiphonal cascade of fanfares.
The ensuing main allegro introduces two parallel pairs of themes. Firstly
a brisk Russian dance which is soon succeeded by a sinuous, seductive clarinet
melody - if this is "oriental", we have that elusive contrast! Secondly
a theme of some nobility caps the ensuing climax, to be succeeded by a
glowing tune on solo horn. The rest I leave to your uninformed enjoyment.
© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street,
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