The three Borodin symphonies receive colorful, energized performances from sympathetic conductors and top-flight orchestras.

BORODIN: The Three Symphonies = Symphony No 1 in E-flat Major; Symphony No. 2 in B minor, Op. 5 “Bogatyr”; Symphony No. 3 in A minor “Unfinished” – Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra/ Gennady Rozhdestevensky (No. 1)/ Philharmonia Orchestra/ Paul Kletzki (No. 2)/ USSR State Symphony Orchestra/ Yevgeny Svetlanov (No. 3) – Praga Digitals PRD 250 375, 80:56 (5/4/18) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi/PIAS] ****: 

Alexander Borodin (1833-1887) earned distinction in his full-time capacity as a professor of chemistry, so his commitment to the “Mighty Five” Russian composers under Mily Balakirev had to remain tangential, slowing Borodin’s creative process. The First Symphony in E-flat Major took the composer five years to complete, and its style seems an awkward hybrid of Russian nationalism and Robert Schumann. Conductor Alceo Galliera made an important recording of the work (1955) with the same Philharmonia Orchestra that Paul Kletzki leads in the B minor Symphony.  Here, Rozhdestevensky leads a veteran Moscow ensemble (January 1966) whose sound projects a large and boisterous resonance in the low basses and in the high brass. Though the music of the first movement’s Adagio opens in the minor mode, the music moves through triple meter to establish the main theme, in the major, through the second violins. The syncopations and dotted rhythms of the movement ally much of Borodin’s technique—somewhat academically, so far as counterpoint evolves—with Schumann and Beethoven before him. The light texture of the woodwind writing will remind auditors of Mendelssohn’s influence. The tympani add a distinctive character to the development, especially when supported by the clarinet. The music does convey a richly colorful and sincere affect, and in tis tender moments, remains alluring.

The Scherzo: Prestissimo conforms to the typically ternary format, with a lyrical trio section in a Russian temper. The staccato strings and winds achieve an aroused energy that glistens in the Mendelssohn mode, though the  melodic line has strong ties to the Queen Mab Scherzo of Berlioz.  The Moscow woodwinds own this movement, supported by firm playing in the sting basses, cellos, and horns.  The lushness of the Andante could owe debts to the equivalent movement in the Balakirev C Major Symphony, but its especial languor—given the color of the English horn – works a magic stylistically unique. The last movement Finale – Allegro molto vivo projects a militant energy highly reminiscent of the  Schumann Symphony No. 2 in C, fertilized by Russian colors.  The Moscow trumpet and tympani work becomes insistent, with striking accents from the woodwinds and pizzicato strings.  Borodin can build quite the cathedral of sound when he wants a grand effect, certainly on a par with the operatic pageantry of Mussorgsky, though without that composer’s harmonic audacity.

Borodin conceived his Symphony No. 2 in B minor between 1869-1876, working in tandem with own opera Prince Igor. A sense of the chivalric ethos of the Bogatyrs inflames this music, whose driving rhythms attracted the likes of conductors Kleiber, Mitropoulos, Kubelik, and Malko on classic recordings. The rendition here led by Paul Kletzki (3 and 12 February 1954) enjoys the fervent discipline of the Philharmonia of London. The urgent ostinato of the first movement transitions to a soft D Major tune in the cellos. A galloping motif exploits various colors and layers of polyphony, whose effects prefigure elements in later Stravinsky. The low basses collide with the high brass, set in furious motion by Kletzki. The lyrical elements of the winds and strings provide a decided contrast that yields to the dire motto theme at the coda.  Two blaring chords introduce the twittering Scherzo in F Major.  The music exploits a number of pedal points in its progression that makes striking use of strings and brass. The shifting meters invest the music with an exotic sway that intimates at Prince Igor. The Andante – utilizing flute and harpinvokes the spirit of the bard Bayan, much as Smetana used the harp to instantiate his national poet, Lumir. The D-flat horn melody sings of noble valor, struggle, and victory.  The climax of the movement benefits from Kletzki’s carefully modulated sense of color dynamics. In syncopes, F-sharps announce the arrival of the nobles, with a seamless segue into the rousing B Major festivities.

The A minor Symphony (1883-84) remained unfinished, and Alexander Glazunov edited the score into its present state of two movements.  The Nicolai Malko performance always made me think the opening melody of the Moderato assai invoked Anna Karenina herself. Here, Yevgeny Svetlanov (February 1983) applies his own sense of proportion and dramatic urgency. Glazunov incorporated elements from Prince Igor into the parts of the exposition materials.  The music opts for lyric beauty rather than Russian declamations, although a brassy urgency comes to the fore. The tour de force lies in the 5/8 Scherzo, a luminous, vital exercise similar in energy to the scherzo of the Bruckner Ninth. The delicate lines of the woodwinds catapult into a shimmering string etude punctuated by woodwinds and then a thunderous series of layered colors, tutti.  The Trio section enjoys a demure beauty that testifies to a melodic gift in Borodin taken from us all too soon.

—Gary Lemco