Alexander BORODIN (1833 - 1887)
Complete Piano Music
Petite Suite (1885) [23:43]
Scherzo in A flat (1885) [3:21]
Dans les steppes de l’Asie centrale2 (1880) [7:39]
Paraphrases1 (1878-79) [25:09]
Tarantella in D2 (1862) [4:28]
Allegretto in D flat1 (1861) [1:43]
Scherzo in E1 (1861) [5:00]
Adagio patetico in A flat (1849) [4:07]
Polka Hélène in D minor1 (1843) [2:14]
Maurice RAVEL (1875 - 1937)
À la manière de Borodine (1913) [1:47]
Marco Rapetti (piano - all tracks); Daniela de Santis1 (piano); Giampaolo Nuti2 (piano)
rec. Villa Vespucci, San Felice a Ema Florence Italy, 3-5 September 2008

I am great fan of Brilliant Classics - they have a brilliant (pun intended!) knack of licensing superb recordings for a fraction of their original cost as well as originating their own judiciously chosen recordings of interesting repertoire. As here, a disc of Borodin’s complete piano works collected onto one well-filled disc would seem to promise delights and treasures. In part it does but at the same time it contains possibly the most annoying piece of music I have heard in a long time!

The (uncredited) liner-notes with this disc are superb - 14 pages of interesting and informative reading throwing much light on both the composer and the music. The disc opens with the two pieces that the liner tells us are; “[Borodin’s] only accomplished piano pieces for two hands”. That being the case the other fifty plus minutes of the disc are filled with collaborations, transcriptions, juvenilia and even a couple of homages by other composers. The Petite Suite which starts the disc will be known to most collectors not in this - its original form - but instead Glazunov’s orchestral transcription. I have to say I have always enjoyed that realisation a lot but the power and austerity of the opening Au couvent - andante religioso makes a far greater impact here. The principal pianist is Marco Rapetti, a Juilliard graduate, and currently a piano professor at the Conservatory of Genoa. In this movement he is superb; sombre and with a wide dynamic range and tonal palette. You can instantly hear Borodin as a unique and powerful voice and understand the abiding influence he had over other composers. Sadly none of the rest of the suite comes close to that achievement. Elsewhere Rapetti seems absolutely determined to impose agogic rubati in music whose main charm is its simplicity of utterance. Hence the second movement Intermezzo - tempo di menuetto lurches around in an almost drunken state - the 3/4 pulse all but lost. Likewise the two linked Mazurkas that follow have mannered phrasing at every turn - the second one ending up with a very strange sub-Viennese hesitation to the second beat of each bar. I’m sure part of the appeal to Glazunov as he approached his orchestration was the underlying feeling of dance that imbues most of the movements - the disc under review is a case of a performer imposing choices on the music that are in no way apt or indicated. The Reverie comes off better but I feel would benefit still more from a simpler approach. The Serenade - allegretto that follows is the worst offender of all. This is the movement known to the world for its use in the musical Kismet set to the words “Night of my Nights”. In the show it has a barcarolle 6/8 feel but that is so distorted here that I actually had to check the original piano score to see who had changed it so radically. Sad to relate it is the pianist - and it is probably the most extreme example of rhythmic distortion I have ever heard, I cannot for an instant imagine how it is musically justifiable. So ultimately a really charming suite of music, well worth hearing in its original version but subjected to the most distorting interpretive intervention imaginable. The Scherzo in A flat fares far better. Glazunov incorporated this into his orchestral version of the Petite Suite but it was written as an original and distinct work. It has that wonderful energetic festive swirl that embodies the best of the Russian nationalist composers.

But, that is not the annoying piece! That laurel wreath is reserved for the 15 Paraphrases. This is a collaborative work dreamt up by that famous group of composers ‘The Might Handful’ - including Borodin - who met on Friday nights to present new works and discuss art in general. You can imagine the conversation; “don’t you think it would be a fun idea if each of us wrote a piece for piano 4 hands where the upper part consists of just 16 quavers … the SAME 16 quavers. Two basic rules MUST be observed - the rhythm and the pitch of these quavers cannot be changed and they must play continuously.” What capering delights they must have had when Lyadov brought a Valse and a Galop. Then there’s Cui with another Valse and not forgetting Rimsky-Korsakov - who really got the bit between his teeth producing five pieces. His Carillon is the best piece by far as it happens - requiring 6 hands. Rimsky-Korsakov here creates one of those aural pictures of pealing Russian bells that is both powerful and an apt use of the material. Then there’s the Fughetta on B-A-C-H. This leaves Borodin with four pieces which is why the whole cycle merits inclusion here. Actually ‘merits’ is quite the wrong word. No matter what else is playing you can hear - like some annoying child spending all of a weekend visit bashing chopsticks out on your piano - cutting through the texture these incessant 16 quavers. Apparently, Mussorgsky fancied having a go but his piece - heaven forefend - changed the quaver figure and even worse, occasionally left it out all together. I knew I liked Mussorgsky. Ironically the presence of the second player and this repeating rhythm forces Rapetti to play in a far less wayward manner to the great benefit of all. In fact I would have been quite happy to hear these pieces without the ostinato upper line - I would have taken it on trust that the composer’s obeyed the rules! Taken as individual pieces these are all pleasant chips off master’s blocks. The cumulative effect however is the musical equivalent of a Chinese water torture. If I had not been listening to this piece for review purposes I would have jumped ahead.

The bulk of the remainder of the disc is of early salon works written for piano four hands. These are very engagingly simple and charming works and just in case we were ever in doubt what a natural talent Borodin had it includes a Polka Hélène written when he was just 9. Several of these works are receiving their premiere recordings here hence for fans of Borodin or the simply curious this disc is self-recommending particularly at bargain price. I should stress that the playing of the 4-hand works is very adept: bright, buoyant and articulate. Great fun to play without being the slightest bit intellectually demanding. Borodin’s own transcription of In the Steppes of Central Asia for 4 hands is a bit disappointing. It has the feel of a publisher’s demand for domestic consumption circa 1880. For sure all the notes are there but the orchestral colour which gives so much of the interest and colour to the work is by definition absent.

The piano as recorded has a slightly clangorous quality particularly when the dynamics rise. Oddly, this adds to the salon atmosphere and certainly does not undermine the technical quality of the playing. So a curious disc that musically veers from the stunningly powerful to the painfully banal. Music of real rarity and interest in between is allied to playing ranging from insightful to perverse. On balance - because I do enjoy Borodin’s music so much - worth buying at the price for the rarities as long as the paraphrases are cordoned off with a health warning.

Nick Barnard