Notes and Editorial Reviews
Alexander Porfireyevich Borodin was the illegitimate son of a prince and his mistress, educated at home in St Petersburg by his mother. Although music was an early passion, he discovered his avocation once he matriculated at the city's Medical- Surgical Academy. A chemist he became, and a good one, though not without his extra-curricular enthusiasms: the head of department once admonished him thus, mid-lecture: 'Mr Borodin, busy yourself a little less with songs. I’m putting all my hopes in you as my successor, but all you think of is music: you can’t hunt two hares at the same time.'
Fortunately for us, Borodin was happy to ignore his professor.We have left to us a small, eccentrically proportioned body of work which acknowledges the learnt influence of Wagner and Chopin in their respective fields while nonetheless cultivating a personal and nationally inflected voice that was principally nurtured by his fellow member of 'The Mighty Handful', Mily Balakirev. That voice was first cultiva- ted in abstract orchestral works, which met with mixed acclaim, but the Second Symphony is one of the most popular Russian works of its kind; perhaps less well known these days than half a century ago, but full of Borodin's trademark, lyrical melodies, bending towards a wistfulness and melancholy that never threatens to break into outright hysteria unlike the work of his contemporary Tchaikovsky.
Songs and chamber music are barely known outside his home country, but they are worth discovering, as this unique edition will quickly reveal. And then there's his sprawling, unfinished masterpiece: Prince Igor, work of almost two decades, completed and partly orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov, the brain- child of the Mighty Handful's christener, Vladimir Stasov. This chronicle of a bloody but exuberant period in Russian history makes the most of Borodin's fascination with Russia's outposts, in music of 'oriental' flavour that survives in popular recognition through the bounding energy of the Polovtsian Dances.
• Featuring performances by Alexander Mndoiantz, Moscow String Quartet, Alexander Gotthelf, Moscow Trio & Marco Rapetti.
Reviews of some of the original recordings that make up this set:
"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 Prince Igor . 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 Les Vendredis , 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 Les Vendredis 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. 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."
FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
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...
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. 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"
-- Nick Barnard, MusicWeb International