WORKS: Symphony No. 1, Symphony No. 2
PERFORMER: BBC Scottish SO/Martyn Brabbins
CATALOGUE NO: CDA 67338
Ukrainian-born, St Petersburg-trained, Sergei Bortkiewicz (1877-1952) certainly happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time – not least in Berlin and later Nazi-occupied Vienna when the Russian musical establishment might have taken notice. Unfortunately the half-century of obscurity into which these astonishingly conservative symphonies fell soon after their premieres in 1935 and 1938 seems hardly undeserved. If they disappear again, it will not be the fault of these recordings: this is a handsome effort from Martyn Brabbins, the BBC Scottish Symphony on top form, and their first-rate Hyperion team achieving full-bodied results in Glasgow’s City Hall.
To be brief, then, is to be brutal. Apart from a handful of Scriabinesque harmonic progressions, there is nothing in the First Symphony which Tchaikovsky would not have recognised. Yet the melodic style, sometimes cramped by cod-folksong melancholy, lacks the older man’s individual sweep and the debt to his Fourth Symphony – begun in the year of Bortkiewicz’s birth – is occasionally blatant (though not as mortifying as the final peroration of the tsarist hymn). No. 2 is more Classically proportioned, but the prophetic savagery claimed for the scherzo by the enthusiastic booklet note pales alongside the much more real terror of its counterpart in the Sixth Symphony of Miaskovsky – another Russian composer who remained true to his late 19th-century roots but who has much more individual things to say. David Nice