Borodin produced a very small output because he was by profession a chemist and medical researcher, arguably one of the leading Russian scientists of his day. Because of this work and his attempts to promote women's rights, he found little time for composition, and thus not only composed relatively few works, but often failed to complete the ones he started. His magnum opus, Prince Igor, was a notable example: there were large portions of the opera left unfinished, but Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov took on the considerable task of completing the score, which contains the popular Polovtsian Dances. The Third Symphony was also left incomplete and, while the Second Symphony was finished by the composer, some of its orchestration was later revised by Rimsky and Glazunov. However, Borodin's First Symphony and In The Steppes of Central Asia, which share the first disc, were purely Borodin's own work.
The First is a pleasant, tuneful and quite optimistic symphony, devoid of angst and any sense of darkness or tragedy. Cast in four movements, its lyrical outpourings are infectious in many ways but ultimately not particularly memorable. Still, it was inspiring enough to catch the ear of Franz Liszt, who arranged a performance of it in 1880 in Germany. Mark Ermler turns in a leisurely but well played reading of the work. His tendency toward moderate to slow tempos continues in the Second Symphony, by far the best symphony Borodin wrote. If you like an expansive, somewhat epic approach to this solid four-movement work, you'll find Ermler to be your man. Dorati, Solti and others are more driven and intense. When I reviewed Sir Simon Rattle's version on a Medici Arts DVD (2056798) here in 2009, I found it a well-shaped, splendidly played effort all around. The Second is a grittier work than the First, with moments when the music darkens and intensifies. Ermler catches the Russian soul of the music alright, but tends to see it as mostly good-natured stuff. He makes a good case for his approach though, and his orchestra performs admirably once again.
The two-movement Third Symphony, which was completed by Glazunov from sketches left by Borodin, is another pleasant, lyrical work. Its chipper character and bright colors emerge with an undeniable charm in this unhurried, well played account. As for the filler on the first disc In The Steppes of Central Asia, Loris Tjeknavorian leads the Amenian Philharmonic in a spirited but not always accurately played performance. He recorded the work at least one other time, for RCA in 1977, with the National Philharmonic, coupled with the Second Symphony. Those performances were reissued in 1991 on CD and I've found them both strong efforts.
The symphonies on this Brilliant Classics set were recorded in 2000 and In The Steppes in 1994-96. The sound reproduction on all works is good. I suppose the question many will ask is, why are both CDs rather sparsely filled? Some labels (Naxos, RCA, etc.) manage to squeeze all three symphonies on one disc, but at Ermler's broad tempos that's not possible. Yet, there was room to accommodate a filler like the Polovtsian Dances. Still, this is a budget offering and the performances are more than acceptable.
Copyright © 2013, Robert Cummings