Alexander BORODIN (1833-1887)
Content and performer details at end of review
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 94410 [10 CDs: 599:08]
These Brilliant boxed sets of the complete works of various composers are often extremely valuable. This is not only for their reissue of recordings that have become unavailable over the years, but also for giving us recordings of works that are otherwise not to be had in any form. This ‘Borodin Edition’ is a particularly useful example.
In the first place, it restores to the catalogue the 1990 recording of Prince Igor which is currently the only available complete version of the score in the form that was reconstructed by Glazunov and Rimsky-Korsakov after Borodin’s death. The only other recordings of this major masterpiece in the current catalogues are an old 1951 Bolshoi recording which is subjected to many cuts, a Boris Christoff recording for EMI which simply omits the whole of the Third Act, and Valery Gergiev’s more recent Maryinsky version which employs a new and supposedly more scholarly edition of the score. Even so, doubts must remain about this new version which makes fairly substantial alterations to the work of the two composers who originally reconstructed Borodin’s score. They, after all had the major advantage of knowing the composer well and having heard him play substantial sections of the score over on the piano to them, even if he had not committed the notes to paper. Glazunov was supposed to have an extremely retentive memory, and the well-known overture for example was entirely written out by him on the basis of what he recalled Borodin improvising at the piano. It is however also noteworthy that many years later, when the score was raided for the Broadway musical Kismet, Glazunov made a threat to sue for breach of copyright since he claimed at that time that he had actually himself written much of the music that was being purloined by the arrangers Wright and Forrest. That may perhaps be read as an attempt to make some monetary gain from his work rather than a claim to full authorship.
The recording here derives from a Sony set made as part of a series of Russian operas conducted by Emil Tchakarov with Bulgarian forces. It was always one of the best of that series, with full-blooded recording quality; and the singing is pretty good too, even if there are no native Russian speakers in the cast - apart from the superb Yugoslav baritone Boris Martinovich, the other singers are all Bulgarians. The two bass parts - both of which were assumed by Christoff in his abridged set - are exceptionally well taken by Nicolai Ghiaurov and Nicola Ghiuselev, the two best known singers in the roster. The rest are excellent too, even if Alexandrina Milcheva lacks the ultimate in firm delivery. The only real problem with this set is that we are given no texts or translations, which are really necessary in a work where the plot is as diffuse as this. However the original Sony set has long been unobtainable, and the recording is most welcome back to the catalogues. The complete texts (including also those of the songs) are available on the Brilliant Classics website.
Another of the advantages of this collection is that it gives us the complete Borodin piano music and songs, including many pieces that are simply unavailable in alternative readings. Boris Christoff did record a collection of Borodin songs in the 1960s and those recordings have been reissued as a fill-up for his cut EMI version of Prince Igor, but otherwise there are no alternative readings, nor indeed of a number of the early chamber works included here. We are given the Petite Suite in its original piano version, but oddly enough not the Glazunov orchestration by which the work is marginally better known. We are however given In the steppes of Central Asia in both its piano and orchestral versions. We are also not given the Cello Sonata, which is available in a number of other recordings and which appears to be the only work of substance omitted from this set.
The piano music was reviewed by Nick Barnard for this site back in March 2010 (review), when he was quite dismissive of the collaborative Paraphrases, describing the repetitive nature of the theme on which the variations are based as “the musical equivalent of a Chinese water torture.” It is still useful to have the complete set as part of this conspectus, even if Borodin’s contributions were only marginal. We are also given the incredibly precocious Polka Hélène written when the composer was all of nine years of age. The playing by Marco Rapetti and his various collaborators in the works for multiple pianos is fresh and does all for the music that some of these decidedly trivial pieces can possibly accept. I am not quite sure what the brief little Ravel tribute to Borodin is doing here, however.
The songs, unlike Christoff’s set, are split between a number of different singers who range from the rather matronly Marianna Tarassova to the rasping character tenor of Konstantin Pluzhnikov. The lion’s share of the songs however goes to the bass Nicolai Okhotnikov who unfortunately does not have the most mellifluous of voices. Although he has a properly black Slavonic sound, he strains unpleasantly in the upper reaches of his vocal line in Song of the dark forest and Pride. Again Brilliant miss a point here by not including Borodin’s own orchestration of Those folk, let alone Rimsky-Korsakov’s similar treatment of The sleeping princess. The piano accompaniment by Yuri Serov is set rather far back, but Irina Molokina makes a nicely sentimental contribution to the three earliest songs. The last five of the songs on this recital, dating from the last years of Borodin’s life, have more substance than the earlier ones, although they are not in the same towering league as those by Mussorgsky. In Those folk Andrey Slavny, who is allocated only two of the songs in this collection, displays a very threadbare voice. In The magic garden Borodin displays an almost impressionist feeling for the text. This could almost be early Debussy. Unfortunately Okhotnikov is rather unsteady in the closing Arabian melody, taken very slowly.
The early chamber music is also a rarity in the catalogues, although these actual performances have been available before. Most of the works fall into the category of prentice works, and many of them are fragmentary or otherwise lacking in one or more movements. They show that Borodin, as with his Polka Hélène, was an early developer and although the pieces are hardly profound - the influences of Schumann and Mendelssohn are very discernible - they are highly enjoyable and proficient trifles. Borodin’s masterpiece in chamber music is the Second String Quartet, and both the string quartets are given good if not outstanding performances here; there is inevitably a great deal of superb competition elsewhere in the catalogues. The playing is lively and idiomatic, even if sometimes lacking in the ideal sense of romantic richness; but the latter problem may be due to the slightly antiseptic sound, with the players rather closely microphoned in what seems to be a rather unreverberant acoustic.
Similarly there is a great deal of competition in the field of the Borodin symphonies. The performances which Brilliant give us here are well and enthusiastically played by the Bolshoi orchestra, obviously relishing their release from the pit for the occasion. Again they lack the ideal in romantic richness. When I reviewed the Andrew Davis cycle last year (review) I drew attention to the problem of the opening horn entry in the slow movement, which can sound suspiciously like a mistake if it is not handled confidently; here it is clearly defined but nevertheless well integrated into the whole shape of the melody. Mark Ermler is a conductor well-versed in the Russian repertory, and he understands Borodin’s idiom perfectly; but the performances, good as they are, lack a certain amount of verve and sheer panache by comparison with the many other versions available on disc. For The steppes of Central Asia Brilliant have turned to Loris Tjeknavorian - not with his earlier RCA version with the National Philharmonic, still among one of the best recordings of this repertoire (review), but with a later one with the Armenian Philharmonic which is unfortunately not so well played or so atmospherically recorded.
Despite the reservations, inevitable under the circumstances, about the recordings here of the better-known Borodin works, this set nevertheless remains uniquely valuable for letting us hear so much of the composer’s music that is otherwise scarce or simply unobtainable. For that reason, and at Brilliant’s price, these recordings are an essential acquisition for anyone interested in the Russian repertory of the nineteenth century. The booklet, as is usual with these collected editions, is not bulky - a mere ten pages of notes to cover all ten discs - but David Nice provides all the essential information, and ranges widely through the incidents of Borodin’s life and the work that was necessary for Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov to put these pieces into performable condition.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
Uniquely valuable for letting us hear so much Borodin that is otherwise scarce or simply unobtainable.
Content and performer details
CDs 1-2 [43.48 + 49.35]
Symphony No. 1 in E flat (1867) [36.13]
Symphony No. 2 in B minor (1876) [30.02]
Symphony No. 3 in A minor (1887) [19.33]
Symphonic Orchestra of the Bolshoi Theatre/Mark Ermler
In the steppes of Central Asia (1880) [7.35]
Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra/Loris Tjeknavorian
rec. Yerevan, Armenia, 1994-6 and 2000
CDs 3-4 [67.26 + 58.13]
String Quartet No. 1 in A (1880) [41.21]
String Quartet No. 2 in D (1885) [28.21]
Serenata alla spagnola (1886) [2.17]
String Quintet in F minor (1854) [29.35]1
Piano Quintet in C minor (1862) [26.05]2
Moscow String Quartet with Alexander Gotthelf (cello)1, Alexander Mindoiantz (piano)2
rec. location not stated, 1995
CD 5 [56.05]
Sextet in D minor (1861) [8.11]1
Trio in G minor on a Russian song What have I done to you? (1859) [7.01]2
Trio in G (1860) [18.53]2
Piano Trio in D (1862) [22.01]3
Alexander Detisov and Alexander Polonsky (violins),12 Igor Suliga and Alexander Brobovsky (violas),1 Alexander Osokin12 and Alexander Gotthelf1, cellos: Moscow Piano Trio3
rec. location not stated, 1995
CD 6 [76.59]
Petite Suite (1885) [23.36] 76.59
Scherzo in A flat (1885) [3.16]
In the steppes of Central Asia (1880) [7.36]1
Paraphrases (1878-9) with Liszt, Liadov, Rimsky-Korsakov, Cui [25.03]12
Tarantella in D (1862) [4.22]1
Allegretto in D flat (1861) [1.43]2
Scherzo in E (1861) [4.16]2
Adagio patetico in A flat (1849) [4.03]
Polka Hélène in D minor (1843) [2.10]2
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
A la manière de Borodine (1913) [1.44]
Marco Rapetti (piano) with Daniela de Santis1 and Giampaolo Nuti1
rec. Villa Vespucci, San Felice a Ema, Florence, 3-5 September 2008
CD 7 [47.12]
The pretty girl no longer loves me (1854) [4.02]45
Listen to my song, little friend (1854) [3.48]15
The beautiful fisher woman (1854) [1.32]25
Why so early, O sunset? (1864) [2.28]3
The sleeping princess (1867) [5.30]1
My songs are poisoned (1868) [1.34]4
The sea princess (1868) [2.40]1
The false note (1868) [1.18]2
Song of the dark forest (1868) [3.10]4
From my tears (1868) [1.43]4
The sea (1870) [3.47]2
Pride (1884) [3.25]4
For the shores of thy far native land (1881) [4.05]1
Those folk (1881) [3.26]3
The magic garden (1885) [2.15]4
Arabian melody (1881) [2.30]4
Marianna Tarassova (mezzo)1, Konstantin Pluzhnikov (tenor)2, Andrey Slavny (baritone)3, Nikolai Okhotnikov (bass)4, Irina Molokina (cello)5, Yuri Serov (piano)
rec. St Catherine Lutheran Church, St Petersburg, March 1995
CDs 8-10 [73.12 + 73.17 + 63.21]
Prince Igor (1888)[209.50]
Boris Martinovich (baritone) - Igor, Steka Estatieva (soprano) - Yaroslavna, Kaludi Kaludov (tenor) - Vladimir, Nicolai Ghiuselev (bass) - Galitsky, Nicolai Ghiaurov (bass) - Konchak, Alexandrina Milcheva (mezzo) - Konchakovna, Minco Popov (tenor) - Ovlur, Stoil Georgiev (tenor) - Skula, Angel Petkov (bass) - Yeroshka, Elena Stoyanova (mezzo) - Polovtsian maiden, Yaroslavna’s nurse
Sofia National Opera Chorus, Sofia Festival Orchestra/Emil Tchakarov
rec. National Palace of Culture, Sofia, 14-20 July 1987
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