Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Valery Gergiev
Polovtsian Dances (Borodin)
London Opera Chorus
Philharmonia Orchestra cond. Vladimir Ashkenazy
ELOQUENCE CD 480 8946
reviewed by Neville Cohn
Even if he’d had no connection at all to music, Alexander Borodin would still be remembered as a remarkable high achiever. He was a medical man who became a professor of chemistry – he did important chemical research into aldehydes – and he was co-founder of the first medical school for women in Russia, sadly an initiative scuppered later by Tsar Alexander III.
Borodin’s wife Ekaterina, like her husband, an asthmatic, was also a hypochondriac and an insomniac given to wandering around the house in the small hours doing housework which often, thoughtlessly, interrupted her husband’s desperately needed sleep. Over time, this had a serious effect on his health. Incredibly, too many pages of Borodin’s music manuscripts were used by Ekaterina to line poo-boxes for the household’s cats, strays which the composer found wandering about in neighbouring streets.
It’s a minor miracle that Borodin produced any music at all under these circumstances. The Borodin household was always crowded, not only with cats but relatives and friends who were always welcome to stay as long as they pleased.
Under conditions such as these, with Borodin snatching morsels of time between his medical and academic work to focus briefly on composition, it’s hardly surprising that his Symphony No 1 took five years to complete. In fact, it is surprising that he wrote anything at all under these conditions.
Borodin worked on his Symphony No 2 for seven years. In Gergiev’s hands, the savage grandeur of its opening movement is riveting – and there’s a frankly thrilling response from the Rotterdam Philharmonic. The scherzo is a pulsing, extrovert delight with much precise pizzicato. The finale, too, is beautifully presented, its joviality, boldness and solemnity evoked to the nth degree.
The sound engineers have come up trumps, too. Tone quality is sumptuous.
Borodin’s symphonies deserve to be heard far more frequently, especially the first.
Hopefully, many will come to appreciate these masterly creations through this first rate recording.
Unlike the symphonies, Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances from his opera Prince Igor are long established favourites – and Vladimir Ashkenazy presides over the London Opera Chorus and the Philharmonia Orchestra to excellent advantage, bringing an engaging freshness to familiar notes. The LOC is in particularly fine form.
This is the first time that this performance of Polovtsian Dances, dating from 1983, is available on compact disc.