> Alexander Borodin - Symphonies Nos. 1, 2 & 3 [RB]: Classical CD Reviews- Sept 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Alexander BORODIN (1833-1887)
Symphony No. 1 (1867) [34.54]
Symphony No. 2 (1879) [25.39]
Symphony No. 3 (1887) [17.43]
Prince Igor - Overture (1887) [10.32]
Prince Igor - Polovtsian Dances (1879) [12.58]
In the Steppes of Central Asia (1880) [7.23]
Notturno (from String Quartet No. 2) (1881) [8.41]
Toronto SO/Andrew Davis (symphonies; Igor)
NYPO/Leonard Bernstein
St Petersburg Camerata - Orchestra of the Hermitage State Museum/Saulius Sondeckis
rec Massey Hall, Toronto, 25 Nov 1976 (1, 2, 3, Igor); Avery Fisher Hall, 8 Dec 1969 (Asia); Radio House, St Petersburg, Russia, June 1993 (Notturno). ADD
SONY Essential Classics SB2K62406 [2CDs: 63.35+59.48]

Davis is extremely successful in putting across the champagne and snowboots feyness and thunder of these works. He is aided by Sony's mature sound. Gone is the edgy ferocity of the 1960s so beloved of CBS (you can hear some of it in the Bernstein contribution). In its place we have subtlety and refinement with a wide soundstage exploited for a maze of antiphonal effects. These are best illustrated in the second and fourth movements of the First Symphony.

I was intrigued to note how Davis reminded me, in the finale of No. 1, of the Fourth Symphony of Schumann. Yes, that's the Borodin symphony arrived at without the ministrations of Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov. In the Second Symphony (as edited by Rimsky and Glazunov) things go very well. The Third Symphony has long been a favourite of mine - a work I hold in some affection. The violin sound is refined and the woodwind (always a Borodin touchstone) a delight. Delight is the word that leaps to mind also for Davis's Scherzo in No. 3.

I had never previously heard the Rimsky version (for solo violin and orchestra) of the Notturno from the second quartet. It makes for pleasant listening. The soloist is not listed. Bernstein shows pulse-steady (even stolid) restraint for In the Steppes of Central Asia - a work which is pure Borodin. Back to Davis and Canada for the Igor extracts. All the virtues of his rhythmically coiled approach to the symphonies are replicated here. I would have preferred a slightly more stentorian balance for the brass antiphonal fanfares at 3.30 in the Overture but this is good. Davis is at his considerable best in the Igor Dances which go at such a lick that I thought of Golovanov in the Mendelssohn Midsummer Night's Dream scherzo (see the highly recommendable EMI GCOC issue). Davis takes the Igor dances by the throat and the result conveys strongly the exotic Tartar barbarity of the opera. He sounds much better than Solti's pell-mell hectic sprint on Decca. Such a pity that the sturdy and precise Toronto Mendelssohn Choir are not mentioned once in the Sony documentation - which otherwise is admirable. We get full discographical details for instance.

This set is up against stiff competition from a Double Decca, ‘The Essential Borodin’ (455 632-2). This has all that the Sony set offers plus the complete string quartet and some songs from Igor and one free-standing song. However the Sony gives you a consistent presentation of the Toronto folk and Davis. Decca offer a superior Martinon version of No. 2 and a flaccid account of No. 3. I have not heard the Ashkenazy/RPO but I understand that it sounds well indeed on both interpretative and audio counts.

There is room in Davis’s case for a yet more violent approach to the pacing but this is still extremely good. The strengths are fully on display in the opening of the final allegro of the Second Symphony. This sparkles, shudders, swoons and flickers. There are some startling bass thuds which add to the effect.

The Toronto recordings were criticised when they first came out. They sound healthy enough now; perhaps a mite hard-edged when loud but nothing serious.

I am sure that St Petersburg Notturno is DDD but the notes do not claim it as such.

Rob Barnett



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