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October 27, 2009

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":

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:37 AM | | Comments (8)


Thanks for reminding; I will pull out one of my CDs with the 2nd Symphony and listen to it. The only question is whether I should play Kubelik's or Sanderling's recording - I think I will go for the later.

And let's not forget the opera Prince Igor, not just the Polovtsian Dances. I am still looking for a good recording, not being satisfied with Gergiev.

One of the first classical tapes I received as a birthday gift was this "cheapie" Allegro release featuring Tchaikovsky's "1812" overture, Rimsky-Korsakov's "Russian Easter Festival Overture," Mussorgsky's "Night on the Bare Mountain," and, of course, Borodin's "Polovtsian Dances" (in its choral -- for me, preferred! -- incarnation). This was actually a rather good collection, and the performances were outstanding -- but I have no idea as to the identity of the performers, since the tape is lost in the mists of time... It featured the painting of

(I also prefer the choral version of the 1812, too!)

I consider all four of these gentlemen to have been outstanding musical _painters_, meaning that -- technical considerations aside -- their music is absolutely _fun_ and thrilling to experience - if not downright magical at times. (Epic film scores, in particular, owe a great deal of their inspiration to such works!)

One of my best opera memories: Seeing the Bolshoi's "Prince Igor" during a college semester, 1981. I'd heard the old Christoff recording on EMI already (not such a good one, really, but Christoff was great). The Bolshoi's was some sort of revival, and Yevgeniy Nesterenko was Prince Igor on opening night. I went back and saw two more performances of the same production. (The tickets were priced like movie tickets! I don't know what the prices would be like now.)

Cool. Thanks for sharing the memory. TIM

Don Cicco - I recommend you seek out the Bolshoi/Melodiya Recording under Mark Ermler - a superb cast with Ivan Petrov, Vladimir Atlantov, Artur Eisen, Elena Obratsova, Tatyana Tugarinova, and Alexander Vedernikov.

Of course, don't forget the chamber music (plundered very successfully for the musical Kismet - This is My Beloved) or the songs (I own an LP of Christoff singing them; I don't know if it made it to CD).

Mr. Mike,

Thank you for recommendation. I will seek it. Hopefully, the conducting is good - that's the deal breaker for me and where Gergiev falls, in spite of great singing from Olga Borodina.

I just found out there is a European release of Borodin's complete Chamber Music on 3 cds scheduled for 11-15-09 (unusual to see a release on a Sunday, but thats what it says). Here is a listing of the works:
Streichquartette Nr. 1 & 2; Klavierquintett c-moll;
Streichquintett f-moll;
Serenata alla spagnola für
Streichsextett d-moll;
Streichtrios G-Dur & g-moll;
Klaviertrio D-Dur

And also Don Ciccio, there is an earlier Prince Igor recording with the great tenor Ivan Koslovsky; and don't forget Ansermet's superb recording of the 2nd symphony.

There was a USSR-era color film of Prince Igor from 1970 or thereabouts, which I saw when a series of opera films was showing as part of a tour of some sort several years back.

The St. Louis Symphony performed Borodin's Symphony No. 2 earlier this month. It's surprising to read that the last previous performance was in 1945.

I was interested in science also, but not a big fan of chemistry and physics. Very few composers I know so far that has a main career that's not related to music.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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