Music we've been missing (part 13): Alexander Borodin
I've always had a soft spot for Borodin's music, probably because he wrote one of the pieces that first drew me toward the classical path when I encountered it as a kid -- "In the Steppes of Central Asia," a perfect little gem of irresistble melody and clever construction. It gets radio play regularly, but how often have you found it on a concert program by a top-drawer orchestra? And how often have you heard one of his symphonies live? (They would make nice alternatives once in a while to the ever-present Tchaikovsky symphonies.)
It seems that Borodin's claim on fame remains, for many people, the atmospheric "Polovtsian Dances" from his opera "Prince Igor" and the exquisite Nocturne from his String Quartet No. 2 -- pieces also familiar for their adaptation in the musical "Kismet." But there's more to savor, and the rest of Borodin's relatively small list of works deserves greater attention.
How can you not want to hear stuff by the guy Victor Borge (in his book "My Favorite Intermissions") describes as "a gentle, kindly man, a general in the Russian Army, a famous chemist, and the original Absent-Minded Professor. Borodin was so absent-minded that he once walked out of the house in full military uniform, complete with medals and plumed helmet, in fact complete with everything except his pants ... and in the middle of playing something on the piano he'd suddenly jump up and rush over to the lab because he'd remember that something was boiling over."
A very cool composer, if you ask me. And what a gift he had for melody. To illustrate, here's the third movement from his Symphony No. 2, with its haunting little theme that, when first intoned by the horn (at 2:21 on this clip), gets right under your skin; the Scherzo from his unfinished Symphony No. 3; and my old fave, "In the Steppes of Central Asia":