Borodin (1833-87) - Polovtsian Dances, from "Prince
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).
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.
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.
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.
© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street,
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