BARGAIN OF THE MONTH

Alexander BORODIN (1833-1887)
Symphony No. 1 in E flat [34:24]
Symphony No. 2 in B minor [26:39]
Symphony No. 3 in A minor (orch. Glazunov) [17:37]
Seattle Symphony Orchestra/Gerard Schwarz
rec. 8 and 15 May, 2009 (No 2), 28 January, 2010 (No 3), 4 and 24 February, 2011 (No 1), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, Washington, USA
NAXOS 8.572786 [78:40]

In January 2011 the Seattle Symphony and Gerard Schwarz began an improbable quest through the orchestral showpieces of the Russian romantics with a glorious Scheherazade. Thatís still on my Recording of the Year shortlist; I called it ďnothing short of spectacularĒ. The only edge it has over this disc of the Borodin symphonies is the element of surprise. That Scheherazade had delightful shock value; this Borodin album is terrific too ó but this time I expected it!

The First Symphony receives a cogent, clear, very charming performance: the opening introduction is sufficiently solemn and Russian. In the main movement the outstanding Seattle winds help create a more distinctively Borodinian atmosphere than usual - often thought of as Mendelssohn-like but here, with such tangy woodwinds and blustery brass, the comparison makes next to no sense. The lively scherzo gives away a tiny whiff of Borodinís Germanic predecessors, but not much. Thereís brisk cheer, toe-tapping enthusiasm, and bassoons intruding with humorous insistence. The highest compliment I can pay here is to say that I canít imagine the scherzo sounding more idiomatically Russian under Svetlanov. The strings get to shine in the slow movement, where again the critical impression is of the Seattle Symphony as a terrifically Russian-sounding ensemble: listen to that English horn solo (by Stefan Farkas), or the exquisite final seconds!

The first few chords of the classic Second Symphony suggest a slight lack of ferocity and firepower, but the worries donít last long. Gerard Schwarz indulges throughout the symphony in extremely intelligent nudges to the tempo: a suddenly faster appearance of the first movementís tune (as if itís a pouncing cat), or a brisk transition in the slow movement, or the way that the final coda absolutely leaps out of the prior allegro. These slight deviations from the script ó the script as interpreted by my old standby, Loris Tjeknavorian, that is ó are almost all wonderful. I could have done with the slightest bit more luxuriance in the slow movement - it is plenty gorgeous already. The whole symphony is shot through with the same terrific ensemble sound, marvelous solos, and idiomatically fierce attack which characterized the First. The finale overflows with excitement; itís a terrific performance.

The unfinished Third Symphony opens with an oboe solo for Ben Hausmann, whose work I praised on the Scheherazade album and who earns laurels again here. The movement combines elements of a sonata-form dance and a nocturne, and is rather shorter than the scherzo which follows. One does rather notice the difference in orchestration (itís by Glazunov), but the performance is elegant and very sensitively done ó those adjectives do sound more apt than they might in the aggressively lively Second.

The sound ideally captures the excellent Seattle Symphony. Engineer Dmitriy Lipay, also responsible for the orchestraís ongoing Rimsky-Korsakov series, really puts the players in a flattering light. The ensemble truly fills the sonic space, but extraordinary riches of orchestral detail are audible. The strings are reasonably full from top to bottom and the brass ring out with gratifying presence. Iíd love to hear these recordings in the Blu-Ray format for which Naxos prepares all its new orchestral releases these days.

In sum, this definitely stands alongside Tjeknavorian as a top recommendation for the Borodin symphonies. Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony have become a powerhouse in Russian romantic repertoire, and Iím aching to hear more of it. Is there any chance of a Mussorgsky album, or some tone poems by the Mighty Handful: Rimskyís Sadko, Borodinís Steppes of Central Asia, Balakirevís Russia and Islamey? Top of my wishlist, though, are two ballets badly in need of new, complete recordings: Khachaturianís Spartacus and Gayaneh. Please, Naxos? Still, one mustnít get too greedy: this is as good as it gets.

Brian Reinhart

This is as good as it gets. The Seattle Symphony have become a powerhouse in Russian repertoire.