BORODIN: Symphony No. 2 in b; Symphony No. 3 in a; Prince Igor Overture – L’Orch. de la Suisse Romande/ Ernest Ansermet – London/Decca (1954)/ Original Recording Group 45 rpm (2 vinyls) (2015) ORG 153 *****:

Probably the most important large-scale work by Borodin, the Second Symphony is considered one of his greatest. I heard it first as the music for the BBC radio version of The Day of the Triffids (better than the movie) and it has been my favorite Borodin work ever since. He began the symphony in 1869 and set his opera Prince Igor aside in 1870 to work on and off on the symphony. It has a number of melodic resemblances to Prince Igor, and its abrupt opening theme comes from an abandoned chorus of Polovtsians from that opera. One critic nicknamed the work The Heroic Symphony.

The Scherzo movement is a Russian Barcarolle with lilting rhythms, and the third Andante movement was intended to depict a Slavic minstrel accompanying himself on a type of zither, represented by the harp in the orchestra. It has one of the composer’s most serene melodies. The Finale-Allegro of the symphony is more free than the opening movement, and is a bright scene of great celebration, using Slavic dances with syncopated downbeats. It is felt that Borodin had in mind the knights and heroic figures of ancient Russia in this work, with the finale depicting the “knights’ feast” and a jubilant throng of people.

The first recording of the symphony was made in 1929 and ’31, conducted by Albert Coates.  Six mono versions on 78s and LPs followed, and this November 1954 recording by Ansermet was the first stereo version, which had to wait for LP release until after the stereodisc was a fact, in 1958.  (The original release number was CS 6126.)  The Decca engineers definitely had their stereo taping and their famed “stereo tree” mic setup down cold in 1954. The symphony has had at least 15 stereo recordings since then. I no longer have the London CD reissue of the symphony, and there are two SACD recordings of the work, but neither meet the high standards of Ansermet’s version. I’m sure this reissue would leave the CD version in the dust. Nothing in the analog realm matches the enhancement of sound quality of 45 rpm pressings except well-done (and now nearly extinct) direct discs. The massed strings are especially gorgeous and natural-sounding. Bear in mind the more frequent getting up to change the recording and its very high price, but if you have a high quality turntable system and love Borodin this is a must-have. There’s no surface noise whatever.

The Third Symphony was left unfinished at the death of the composer, and Glazunov put together the first two movements. The result sometimes sounds more like Glazuov than Borodin. Glazunov also orchestrated the Prince Igor Overture from scraps of notes Borodin left and from having heard him play it on the piano. The exciting short work employs a number of themes from the opera.

—John Sunier