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Alexander BORODIN (1833-1887)
Symphony No. 1 in E Flat major (1862-67) [33:17]
Symphony No. 2 in B Minor, Op.5 (1869-76) [26:38]
Symphony No. 3 in A Minor (unfinished) [18:57]
National Philharmonic Orchestra/Loris Tjeknavorian
Recorded February 1977 at the Kingsway Hall, England, ADD
BMG CLASSICS RCA RED SEAL 82876623212 [79:00]


Born in 1833 in St. Petersburg, Borodin was the illegitimate son of the Russian (Georgian) Prince Gedianov and his 24 year old mistress Madame Antonova, the wife of an Army Doctor. In accordance with the aristocratic convention of the time Borodin was registered at birth not as the son of the Prince but the lawful son of Porphyry Borodin who was one of the household servants. Borodin received a first-class education and showed that he was a very talented child, not just musically but particularly in chemistry in which he specialised. By his teens the precocious Borodin could speak German, French, Italian and English and was able to play the piano, flute and cello. It is said that Borodin did not receive any formal lessons in composition until 1863 when he was taught by the eminent Mily Balakirev. 

Despite being recognised as an accomplished composer Borodin graduated from the Academy of Medicine in St. Petersburg. Qualified as a physician Borodin also earned his professional living as a chemist becoming a Professor at the Medico-Surgical Academy. He devoted himself to scientific research and was particularly acclaimed for his work in the field of aldehydes. As a consequence of the divided priorities in his life, music took a back seat for Borodin and he was not as prolific a composer as many of his contemporaries. However many of Borodin’s works are of such high quality that they are considered masterpieces of Russian nationalist music. 

Borodin became a member of a group of contemporary Russian classical composers called The Mighty Handful (aka, The Russian Five) who were brought together under the leadership of guiding star, Mily Balakirev with the aim of producing a specifically Russian Nationalistic music rather than imitating older European music. The other members of The Russian Five were César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Before them, Mikhail Glinka with his operas and orchestral tone poems had gone some way towards producing a Russian nationalistic style based on folk-songs, dances and old church music etc. The Mighty Handful continued Glinka’s accomplishments by drawing their stimulation, inspiration and strength from Russian culture such as history, legends, poetry, literature and folk music and folk-art.

Borodin’s masterwork is undoubtedly the folk-opera Prince Igor which he commenced in 1869. At the time of his death some eighteen years later Borodin had not finished the score that contains the famous Polovtsian Dances. This is often performed as a stand-alone work, and probably constitutes his best known composition. Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov successfully undertook the project to complete and orchestrate the score of Prince Igor from Borodin’s drafts.  

Under the supervision of his mentor Balakirev, Borodin composed his Symphony No. 1 in e flat major between 1862 to 1867. Balakirev conducted the première of the First Symphony in 1867 in St. Petersburg to considerable acclaim. Borodin received substantial encouragement from Franz Liszt who had been impressed with the symphony. Owing to his influence several performances of the work were given in Germany. 

The First Symphony went a considerable way towards establishing a general pattern that came to be identified with the characteristic ‘Russian’ symphony. The score introduces Borodin’s own distinctive compositional traits amongst those his fascination for and utilisation of various oriental and exotic motifs, recurring themes and colouring that run through the music. The overall outline of the First Symphony comprises an expansive opening movement, then a scherzo, in this case energetic, punctuated by pizzicati from the lower strings. The third movement is a languorous yet concise andante and the work concludes with a celebratory finale with a pronounced national flavour.  

Borodin took six years to write his Second Symphony in b minor, op.5 during which time he was also engaged on his epic folk opera, Prince Igor. The symphony and opera are like sister and brother as not only are they similar in style and character the symphony uses material originally planned for the opera. The Second Symphony is heroic in mood with an oriental flavour in its orchestral and harmonic colourations. The work was a failure at its première in St. Petersburg in 1877 and two years later Borodin made certain revisions to the score using lighter textures to the orchestration and the subsequent performance under the baton of Rimsky-Korsakov was an unreserved success. Franz Liszt arranged a performance of the work in Germany in 1880 which was also a triumph, and this brought Borodin fame outside Russia.  

Borodin’s friend and eminent critic and journalist Vladimir Stassov (1824-1906) who was a champion of the Russian nationalism movement once described the Second symphony as a picture of feudal Russia, giving the work a title of ‘The Bogatyrs’ after a ‘bogatyr’ a mythical Russian giant. Stassov saw the opening movement as a description of the gathering of ancient Russian warrior Princes. In the scherzo Stassov heard the songs of the ‘bayan’ the old Russian troubadour and the music of the finale like a banquet of old Russian heroes in which the festivities were enlivened by music from traditional folk instruments.  

In 1886 Borodin started work on a Third Symphony in a minor that was left incomplete at his death in 1887. The moderato assai and scherzo movements were later completed and orchestrated from Borodin’s sketches by Glazunov who also incorporated certain music Borodin had intended for a string quartet and from Prince Igor.  

In this RCA Red Seal release Iranian-born conductor and composer Loris Tjeknavorian and the National Philharmonic Orchestra play to a high standard throughout in performances that come across as warm, cultivated and unaffected. The brass and woodwind are in fine form with a string sound that is warm rather than rich. I particularly enjoyed how maestro Tjeknavorian is able to mould melodic lines with a ‘Russian’ warmth and adopt moderate yet resilient rhythms. I would have preferred rather more energy and slightly quicker speeds in the allegros although these are well performed readings that are most appealing. The sound quality from the RCA Red Seal engineers on this 1977 recording is most acceptable.  

There are numerous accounts of individual Borodin symphonies in the catalogues and according to my estimation there are five alternative sets currently available that contain all three works. I am familiar with the performances on the Russian Season label from the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra under Mark Ermler on RUS288169, on Naxos 8.550238 the Czecho-Slovak RSO under Stephen Gunzenhauser and from the Toronto Symphony Orchestra under Andrew Davis on SB2K62406. However, I have not heard the interpretations of the three symphonies from the three conductors Ashkenazy, Martinon and Ansermet respectively on Decca 4556322 and the version on ASV from the Rome RAI Orchestra under Jose Serebrier on CDDCA706. My personal recommendation in these three symphonies is a set from my own collection, that at the time of writing does not currently seem to be available, from the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra under Neeme Järvi on DG 4357572. These fine performances under Estonian maestro Järvi are strong and colourful and are so excellently recorded.  

Michael Cookson

see also Review by Rob Barnett



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