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Classical Editor: Rob Barnett
 

Borodin (1833-87) - Polovtsian Dances, from "Prince Igor"
 

Like Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin started in a non-musical profession. Unlike Rimsky, he remained a “holiday composer”. An eminent chemist, musically he merely dabbled until, in 1862, Balakirev persuaded him to take his hobby seriously. Just as his foundation of a School of Medicine for Women was his greatest professional achievement, so Prince Igor was his musical masterpiece - though you might think otherwise, considering the chaotic state in which he left it. Even such a seemingly simple matter as the order of the acts is still open to argument (as witness the recent Kirov recording). 

After Borodin's death, Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov took on the job of completing it. Rimsky-Korsakov came in for a fair bit of stick over his similar devotions to Mussorgsky, but not so with Borodin, stylistically much closer to Rimsky than the distinctly rough-hewn Mussorgsky. The main damage (if that's the right word) is due to Rimsky's greater flair for orchestration, immediately apparent when you compare the Polovtsian Dances with any bit of “pure” Borodin. Yet, as Ian Denton [former President of the Slaithwaite Philharmonic] will readily explain, there is plenty of evidence of improvements in other areas as well, notably the scintillating cavalcade of tunes right at the end, which Ian argues is “pure” Rimsky-Korsakov. 

Much of the impact of the four sections depends on strong maculine/feminine contrasts. The first, prefaced by coiling woodwind, needs no introduction from me, at least, not if you know Kismet! The second is a vigorous orchestral dance, based on the woodwind opening, its thematic repetitions (but wonderfully varied scoring) tracing an arching climax. After a brief hiatus, a terrifically noisy third section lifts the roof. The dying clamour is supplanted by the almost manic dotted rhythm of the final, and longest section. The pulse does not slacken through a reprise of the first section, before the dotted rhythms take over again to build up to that resplendent final cavalcade. 

The chorus is usually omitted, which I feel is a great loss. The words are of no particular importance (the Dances are a divertimento), but the sound is. It’s my bet that Rimsky saw the chorus as an extension of his prodigious orchestral palette, to maximise the “oriental splendour”. If you are familiar only with the concert version, then seek out the choral version without delay! Either way, it’s a cracking “showpiece”, in the very best sense of the word.
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© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


 

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