Borodin: In the Steppes of Central Asia; Symphonies No. 1; Symphony No. 2

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COMPOSERS: Borodin
LABELS: Decca
WORKS: In the Steppes of Central Asia; Symphonies No. 1; Symphony No. 2
PERFORMER: Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy
CATALOGUE NO: 436 651-2 DDD
Although Borodin’s symphonies number in effect only two and a half (the Third was part-completed by Glazunov), they make a significant contribution to the history of the form in Russia. Like Tchaikovsky’s early symphonies, Borodin’s employ typically Russian harmonies, melodies and rhythms against a fairly conventional formal background. No 1, in particular, looks back to Schumann, one of Borodin’s prime influences at the time. Yet there is plenty to mark it out as distinctly Russian, particularly the use of a folksong in the Scherzo’s trio section and the typical oriental lyricism of the slow movement. Symphony No. 2 is his first fully mature work and contains all his most characterful features: rhythmic drive, grandeur, nostalgia and exuberance.

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It is unbridled exuberance that these performances lack; there is plenty of energy, but Ashkenazy often keeps rhythms too four-square and the sound tends to cloud in tuttis, giving them less impact. Yet there is plenty of beautiful playing here, particularly in the slow movements, with some subtly turned wind solos (though the clarinet in the Steppes sounds, presumably unintentionally, wavering and over-Russian).

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A bargain-priced alternative comes with one of Naxos’s most successful recordings, cramming all three symphonies on to a single disc, by the more naturally Slav-sounding Czech Radio SO of Bratislava conducted by Stephen Gunzenhauser. Matthew Rye