Notes and Editorial Reviews
String Quartets: No. 1; No. 2.
Serenata alla spagnola
String Trio in g.
String Trio in G.
Moscow String Quartet;
Alexander Polonsky (vn);
Alexander Bobrovsky (va);
Alexander Gotthelf (vc);
Alexander Mndoiantz (pn)
BRILLIANT 93973 (3 CDs: 182:18)
Although Borodin is known for only one piece of chamber ensemble music today, he actually spent a good deal of time perfecting his craft in this vein. It was only later in life—with his great success as a chemist, his extensive family, his time and energies spent agitating for women’s education—that the composer’s chamber output declined. He never quite gave it up, however, despite urgings by his friends Mussorgsky and Stasov that he concentrate all his musical time on the score of
. One of his last completed works, in fact, was the witty and concentrated
Serenata alla spagnola
movement for a joint quartet written in 1886 with Rimsky-Korsakov, Liadov, and Glazunov, in honor of that wealthy patron of the arts, Beliaeff, who sponsored chamber-music nights every week.
Those Friday evenings at Beliaeff’s, christened
, provided both a sounding board for celebrated and local composers, and several hours’ worth of excellent entertainment. The same conditions existed earlier, on a much more modest scale, among the liberal midde- and upper-class gentry of Borodin’s youth. A young composer eager to stretch his skills could find a circle of friends who were enthusiastic amateurs, and make a social night of it. Under the circumstances, it’s hardly surprising that Borodin built a reputation as a fine cellist, and his future wife, as a fine pianist.
Those early works were never intended for publication. Many of them were never finished, or have been lost. Of the works that remain from the period, among the most interesting are the two surviving movements of a string sextet probably written during 1860, when Borodin was doing postgraduate work in chemistry at Heidelberg. We know it was performed at a fashionable chamber-music evening, and that the manuscript was given to one of the performers, but after that, it vanished until a copyist’s manuscript appeared in a Moscow bookshop more than 90 years later. Like all of the works by Borodin up to that point it displays a pronounced debt to Mendelssohn, but the textures are more varied, the accompaniment more organic rather than repetitive, the thematic content richly lyrical in a way that looks ahead at times to the popular String Quartet No. 2 of 1881.
Two other works of the same general period were the String Trio in G Major (two movements, never finished) and the Piano Trio in D Major (three movements, never finished). The former demonstrates a similar ease in writing effectively for chamber ensembles, but the exuberance and fanciful poetry of the latter recalls the sextet. More conventional sounding (save for a sprightly and very Russian folk scherzo) but structurally assured is the Piano Quintet in C Minor. It turned up in the Beliaeff archives, presumably after Borodin brought it to one of
for criticism and changes long after its initial composition, but wasn’t played in public until 1912, the 25th anniversary of the composer’s death. It was first published in 1938.
I have some reservations concerning the Moscow String Quartet’s performances in the two string quartets on this release. While technically secure (if occasionally sketchy, as in the First Quartet’s Scherzo), and performed with the kind of give-and-take you’d expect from a veteran ensemble, there’s a tendency to rush tempos in some of the slower movements. This is also playing that, however much it may include the occasional rubato, definitely belongs to the new school that avoids lingering among the many beauties in the music. The results seem abrupt, sometimes stiff, even as one admires the musicians’ attention to textures. I can’t help but compare these versions to the analog recordings of the original ensemble named after the composer, the Borodin String Quartet (currently on Chandos 9965). Those possess an attention to detail and a stylistic empathy that is simply hard to match.
Fortunately, the full-steam-ahead approach works better in the earlier works, with their basis in a classicizing Mendelssohn. All of the performers—the Moscow String Quartet, the Moscow Trio (an unrelated ensemble), and the various other musicians—display both an engaging exuberance and a persuasive manner with Italianate cantabile. Above all else, there’s a clear belief in this music’s viability, audible in the sense of engagement that can be heard throughout everything on these discs.
With good, well-balanced sound, this is definitely worth the purchase for everything save the quartets. Go with the original Borodin String Quartet for that.
FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
Works on This Recording
Quintet for Strings in F minor by Alexander Borodin
Alexander Gotthelf (Cello)
Moscow String Quartet
Written: 1853-1854; Russia
Serenata alla spagnola by Alexander Borodin
Moscow String Quartet
Written: 1886; Russia
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