Composed 1869-76 then revised several times up to the composer’s death in 1887, Borodin’s Second has long been recognised as the first great Russian symphony.


Much of its pioneering originality can be ascribed to its being the wild offspring of an already accomplished symphonist – Borodin was prompted to compose it by the warm public reception given the premiere of his very fine, totally unprogrammatic First Symphony – and a would-be epic opera composer.

Prompted by Vladimir Stasov, effectively godfather of the so-called ‘Kuchka’ (‘Mighty Handful’) group of composers, Borodin had already started work on his opera, Prince Igor, on a scenario by Stasov based on the old Slavic poem The Lay of Igor’s Campaign: this concerns the medieval prince and his failed campaign in 1185 against the Polovtsy, a fierce tribe of warriors who had settled in the Don River valley.

Though initially intrigued, by early 1870 Borodin was disenchanted with Stasov’s ‘undramatic’ scenario. Still, his imagination had been stirred, so Borodin promised Stasov that although intending to abandon the opera (he in fact resumed it in 1874) he would incorporate music he’d written for it into his new symphony.

We named Borodin one of the best Russian composers of all time

A guide to the music of Borodin’s second symphony

The result is strikingly colourful, especially compared to Borodin’s comparatively sober First, the latter influenced by Beethoven, Schumann and – of greatest significance to the Second – Berlioz. The French composer’s purely instrumental Queen Mab Scherzo (from Roméo et Juliette), Borodin’s model for his First Symphony’s Scherzo, already showed how a literary source could be transformed into a purely symphonic movement.

Yet, for all its colour and character, the Second is a rigorously constructed symphony: the opening Allegro with its baleful ‘motto’ theme and contrasting lyrical second theme clearly emulates the pithy first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth. The Scherzo, as with Borodin’s First Symphony, is the second movement rather than the conventional third – a practice subsequently followed by Glazunov and then by Shostakovich (notably his Fifth and Tenth symphonies).

More improvisatory in character is the lyrical third movement (featuring a splendid horn solo), which opens and closes with a rising motif played by a solo clarinet and harp, intended to suggest the opening and closing flourish of a bayan (minstrel) accompanying himself on a gusli (a medieval stringed instrument described in The Lay of Igor’s Campaign). This segues to one of the most rousing and effective finales of all symphonic literature, its lively yet unpredictable dance rhythms (stretches of the music alternate bars of 2/4 with 3/4) appropriately furnished with festive tambourine and cymbals.

When Borodin played his symphony-in-progress to his Kuchka colleagues in October 1871, the finale particularly thrilled and delighted his friends. Then, it seems, Borodin had to put the work aside due to his ever-pressing commitments as a research chemist.

What next prompted work on the symphony was his encounter with newly developed keyed brass instruments. Rimsky-Korsakov, appointed Inspector of Music Bands of the Navy Department in 1873, started bringing over several of the latest woodwind and brass instruments for Borodin to try out. Already a skilled flute player, Borodin quickly discovered the potential of other wind instruments, and also proved quite adept at playing the brass instruments.

Once he discovered what modern virtuoso brass players were capable of – far greater than their teacher Balakirev had allowed – Borodin resolved to write a brilliant Scherzo to showcase the capabilities of these instruments. Unfortunately, this proved too demanding for the orchestra that premiered the symphony early in 1877, and the Scherzo had to be taken at a slower than desired speed. Disappointment turned to disaster when a group hostile to the Kuchka disrupted the concert with what was described as ‘a regular hullabaloo’. The apparent failure of Borodin’s brave experiment left the composer despondent.

It was fortunate that, at that point, Borodin’s day job led to a work trip in Europe that summer. On his travels, he gathered enough courage to visit Liszt in Weimar and show him the piano scores of his two symphonies.

Liszt was so taken by the Scherzo of the new symphony that he performed it, partnered by his brilliant young student Juliuz Zarębski, at one of his musical matinées. He also told Borodin he had ‘a colossal musical technique’ and advised: ‘Go on working, even if your works are not performed or published, even if they get bad reviews. Believe me, they will make their own way.’

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His self-belief restored, Borodin revised the Scherzo’s scoring. Fortuitously, he transformed the movement into an iridescent score involving virtuosity in ensemble playing, where the music is passed seamlessly from one section of the orchestra to another. Its colours would inspire composers beyond Russia’s borders, notably Debussy and Ravel, so effectively revolutionising the art of orchestral scoring for the next century.

Best recordings of Borodin's Symphony No. 2

Gerard Schwarz

Seattle Symphony

Naxos 8.572786

It is perhaps futile to try to find an ideal ‘authentic’ performance. Borodin died before he could complete a definitive version of his symphony, and it was left to Rimsky-Korsakov, with Glazunov’s assistance, to tidy its score for publication and add such details as metronome speeds.

Most conductors disregard these editorial annotations, presumably thinking Rimsky’s credentials were tarnished by his interventionist editing of Musorgsky; yet Rimsky clearly respected Borodin’s work and his suggested speeds were based on his own experience of conducting the symphony in the composer’s presence. Still, the upshot is a great variety of enjoyable accounts – enough to displace some old favourites, such as Kirill Kondrashin’s live recording with its fast and glamorous finale, outclassed now by more consistently committed performances.

Gerard Schwarz’s 2009 recording takes the top slot, not simply as a technically immaculate performance by a fine orchestra whose principals invariably shine when given the solo spotlight; what clinches the prize is that their account engages from beginning to end. The opening Allegro is vigorous though never bludgeoning, with playing that is lean and – most crucially – purposeful, with no moments of uncertain ensemble which mar so many highly regarded accounts.

Possibly contentious is Schwarz’s relatively steady speed for the Scherzo – it flutters rather than hums – yet this allows the woodwind to mould legato phrases with attractive grace. There is a splendid spring, too, to the strings’ off-beat vaulting from firm tuba and bass downbeats (so often, at more breakneck speeds, reduced to whiplash-inducing lurches); and there is plenty of guile in the central trio’s languid melodies. The third movement is taken at a more flowing tempo than offered by most other accounts, yet the phrasing is very much alive and sentient with a sense of drama, and the central Poco più animato has a real sense of direction.

The performance is capped by a lively and genuinely joyous finale, with bubbling woodwind and singing strings. For its final stretch, the coda, Schwarz does not immediately revert to the main tempo but allows the textures of Borodin’s wonderfully detailed scoring (divided alternating string pizzicato chords) to tell effectively at an initially slower tempo; the woodwind scoring, as the music accelerates to the final jamboree, is both charming and exhilarating.

Nikolai Golovanov (conductor)

Urania WS121307

In this extraordinary 1949 recording with the USSR Grand Symphony Orchestra, Golovanov well exceeds the norms of interpretation: his additions to Borodin’s score, underlining the motto theme with rumbling timpani, or ending the Scherzo’s final long-sustained woodwind chord with a bass note, are mere details in a blazing account whose sheer intensity makes even the famously flamboyant Leopold Stokowski seem positively sober. Yet Golovanov’s conviction allied with the superlative quality of his musicians results in a compelling performance.

Loris Tjeknavorian (conductor)

RCA Red Seal 82876-62321-2

This 1977 recording captures a committed, red-blooded performance with a good professional orchestra (the National Philharmonic) in resonant yet well-detailed sound. Tempos are generally close to Rimsky’s, with the Scherzo just a touch faster than the published ‘semibreve = 108’. Be warned, though, that there are several small but potentially irritating glitches, most glaringly in the Scherzo’s trio section, involving a brief mismatch between the heavy brass and the rocking pizzicato accompaniment.

Jean Martinon (conductor)

Decca 455 6322

In this 1958 LSO performance, precision and tone quality count for much, though having expression generally kept at arm’s length is not ideal for Borodin, one might think; yet the result is compelling and impressive.

The Scherzo, whirring like a well-tuned motor, is an impressive demonstration of ensemble work; and, most curiously, the slow movement comes out particularly well in Martinon’s purposeful account, with a beautifully played horn solo. The recorded sound – though rather close-focus and quasi-detailed – is still an attractive example of early stereo.

And one to avoid…


Yevgeny Svetlanov is normally a conductor one can count on for being engaging and imaginative in this kind of repertoire. But in his 1966 recording he presents a performance which, although disciplined, feels episodic rather than coherent, and is too often becalmed. Even the finale, although taken at a decently lively tempo, appears joyless, with woodwind melodies stiffly articulated rather than sung.


daniel jaffe
Daniel JafféJournalist and Critic, BBC Music Magazine

Daniel Jaffé has been associated with BBC Music Magazine since 2004 when he was the reviews editor, working in that post until he went freelance in 2011. Previously he was on the editorial teams of Classic CD and Gramophone. He is a specialist in both Russian and 20th-century British music.