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Alexander BORODIN (1883-87)

Symphony No 1 in E flat (1): Symphony No 2 in B minor (1): Symphony No 3 in A minor (1): Prince Igor: Overture and Polovtsian Dances (1): In the steppes of Central Asia (2): String Quartet No 2: Nocturne (3)

Toronto Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Davies, conductor (1): New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein, conductor (2): St Petersburg Camerata (3)

rec. Massey Hall, Toronto, 1976 (1): Philharmonic Hall, New York, December 1969 (2): Radio House, St Petersburg, June 1993 (3)

NEWTON CLASSICS 8802097 [77.34 + 57.17]


Borodin was only a part-time composer (he was a full-time professor of chemistry) and his original orchestral works fit easily onto this pair of discs. Indeed when he died his music was in such disarray that it required a considerable amount of editorial work by Glazunov and Rimsky-Korsakov to put it into a performable state.

Of the works the composer did manage to complete, the First Symphony is frankly an experimental work which does not always ‘come off’; and the Third Symphony is a torso left incomplete at his death which Glazunov had to reconstruct. The resulting pair of movements sound like intermezzi, and one feels that the work needs more substantial movements to be a really satisfactory whole.

The real masterwork which Borodin left, however, is undoubtedly the Second Symphony: one of the greatest Russian symphonies of the nineteenth century and worthy to be ranked with the last three of Tchaikovsky. In particular the slow movement is a beautiful piece which looks forward to Rachmaninov, especially in the return of the main theme on massed strings. But the symphony presents major problems for performers, and one of these comes with the initial statement of this main theme on solo horn. This opens with a single detached note which if not very tactfully handled can easily sound like a false entry (there is a particularly awful example in the recording by the USSR State Symphony Orchestra under Svetlanov, and Carlos Kleiber in Stuttgart is nearly as bad); it needs to be carefully integrated with the opening phrase. Davis’s Toronto player here totally ignores the detached note and blends it into the melody, which is not what Borodin wrote, and his playing thereafter is sometimes inelegant.

The main problem with the Davis performances, which constitute the greater part of the contents of this two-disc set, is the recorded balance. When the recordings were issued in the late 1970s (the disc cover states that the recording date for the symphonies is unknown, but it was 1976) the set came into competition with contemporaneous recordings under Tjeknavorian, and it has to be admitted that despite the controversially wayward interpretations of the Armenian conductor listening to the recordings again confirms their superiority. The balance in Toronto is horribly forward and exposes the slightest defect in the orchestral playing, which is not impeccable. In the Polovtsian Dances there is an unnamed and uncredited chorus employed, but the very forward balance they are given cannot disguise their woeful inadequacy in numbers and the tenors sound horribly strained.

Davis for some reason never recorded In the steppes of Central Asia as part of his otherwise complete survey of Borodin’s orchestral music, and a 1969 performance by Bernstein is therefore interpolated. But the recorded balance here is, if anything, even worse. The idea behind the music is straightforward enough; the travelling caravan should advance towards the listener and then retreat into the distance. Here the woodwind and high violins at the beginning are already right in the listener’s face, and then as the music grows louder the orchestra paradoxically enough recedes back into the middle distance – only for the process to be reversed at the end. There is therefore no light and shade, no sense of progress. To add insult to injury, the melody in the winds at the climax is all but drowned out by the overly forward balance given to the strings and brass. This is most certainly not one of Bernstein’s great recordings, although he paces the music well.

The most interesting item in this collection is one of the shortest tracks (and the only digital recording), an orchestration of the Nocturne third movement of the Second String Quartet. There is no indication of who was responsible for the orchestral arrangement, and David Gutman (who contributes a new and commendably informative set of notes) seems unsure; he refers to the arrangements by Sargent for strings and Rimsky-Korsakov for violin solo and small orchestra (it is clearly neither of these), and also to an arrangement by Nicholas Tcherepnin which this appears to be. Järvi includes this arrangement in his Borodin collection; and it is a very effective arrangement. But it clearly expects a large romantic orchestra with plenty of romantic violin ‘wash’, and this is not what it receives here from the St Petersburg Camerata, who appear to have no more than two desks of strings in any section. One other minor point: the muted horn solo towards the end is played with what sounds like hand stopping, and the resulting brassy rasp sticks out unpleasantly like a sore thumb. The performance otherwise is very good and nicely inflected, although no conductor is credited at all.

But this one track of interest is not sufficient to commend this reissue. There any many other recordings of these works, and many better ones at that.


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