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Borodin (1833-87) - Overture: Prince Igor

Like Liadov, 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. 

His biggest 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 at Wembley. 

The dedicated 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, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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