Too much can be made of Borodin the jolly chemist, concoting pieces in his spare time as though he was fiddling with a bunsen burner. Even in an age of dilettantes, he was a deeply serious composer whose re-engagement with the symphonic form through an apparently unamenable nationalist tradition resulted in a remarkable and inimitable style, long-breathed and sinuous. There is no excess fat or sentiment in Borodin’s music, which is the mark of a master, not an amateur. With a mastery of orchestral colours to rival Tchaikovsky, he brought both German abstraction and wild Caucasian ritual into Russian concert halls.
The Second is the best-known of his three symphonies, with its popular not-quite-slow movement, but the First is an impressively weighty, goal-directed, full-scale effort for an enthusiast in the very early stages of formal tutelage (with Mily Balakirev). As well as the unfinished Third Symphony, the set includes his other, most popular music: the slow movement of the Second Quartet, arranged for string orchestra, the ruminative tone-poem In the Steppes of Central Asia (in an atmospheric recording conducted by Leonard Bernstein) and naturally excerpts from his compendious folk-epic opera, Prince Igor.
“In the First and Third Symphonies Davis’s marvellous sense of style and the clear, bright recordings are well aligned. His extraordinarily keen sense of rhythm and texture—he shapes and projects the ostinato
rhythms of the First Symphony and much of the Prince Igor music (enthusiastically sung) like a young Toscanini—distinguishes page upon page of the music… [in the slow movement of the Second] Davis treating the
music with the kind of intelligence and musical sensibility one would hope to find in the performance of a slow movement by Vaughan Williams or Delius.”
“Davis's 1976 Borodin cycle makes a charming impression, though his leisurely paced Symphony No. 1 rambles. The lively Second and Polovtsian Dances make some amends.”
“one can hardly put a foot wrong when buying a Borodin set these days. The present twin – with newly written notes by David Gutman - is a choice that is both sure-footed and brilliant.”
Click on any of the works listed above for alternative recordings.