September 01, 2011


Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 3; Prince Rostislav; Caprice bohémien. BBC Philharmonic conducted by Gianandrea Noseda. Chandos. $18.99.

Borodin: Symphonies Nos. 1-3. Seattle Symphony conducted by Gerard Schwarz. Naxos. $9.99.

     Alexander Borodin was a part-time composer, but his sparse output was enormously influential on other Russian composers, particularly those with the strongest “flavor” of Russia in their music. Rachmaninoff’s Third Symphony has a distinct and direct Borodin tie-in, although not one that Rachmaninoff specifically acknowledged: the three-note motif that opens the second movement and is given to the unusual combination of horn and harp seems a direct sonic reflection of the melancholy minstrel-like song in the corresponding movement of Borodin’s Second. Rachmaninoff, of course, develops his theme differently from the way Borodin handled his, following it with yet another of his trademark melancholy descending themes before the Borodin-like melody builds to a climax. But the effectiveness of this movement (which also has some echoes of Tchaikovsky) ties quite surely to Borodin’s example and is worth hearing in juxtaposition with the earlier work. The effectiveness of the Third Symphony as a whole is more a matter of dispute: the first two movements were written together, but the third and last was not started until nine months later and is not, for some listeners, a fully satisfactory conclusion. Gianandrea Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic, though, handle the symphony as a unified whole, and present it with freshness, polish and the same excellent style that has marked the earlier entries in their Rachmaninoff series. This is a strongly played, propulsive performance that gives the Rachmaninoff Third its due, even if it never quite makes the case that this final Rachmaninoff symphony is the equal of the Second (interestingly, Borodin also wrote three symphonies – the third unfinished – of which the Second is the best). The symphony is accompanied on this CD by two early, infrequently heard works, both of them done to a turn by Noseda and the BBC players. Prince Rostislav, Rachmaninoff’s first major symphonic poem, which he wrote at the age of 18 (in 1891) and to which he did not assign an opus number, certainly has derivative elements (it sounds a lot like Tchaikovsky in places); but it is also an effective tone-painting of a young prince who, drowning, is embraced by rusalki (water nymphs). This work too has a Borodin connection: the story, which has historical roots, is also mentioned in the tale that inspired Prince Igor. The third work on this Chandos CD is also early (1892-94), but Rachmaninoff gave this one an opus number (Op. 12) – and it very neatly shows how different his sensibilities could be from Tchaikovsky’s, even when both handle similar material. Caprice bohémien could easily have been as lighthearted as Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien, which in some ways it resembles; it could equally well have had the coloristic elements of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio espagnol. But that is not quite Rachmaninoff’s way, even in a youthful work like this. Instead, the composer starts with a light, syncopated dance – then transforms it slowly into a funeral march. The latter part of the work offers more of the glitter that one would expect, but just enough fear hangs over the proceedings to allow listeners with a sense of the retrospective to obtain glimmerings of the Symphonic Dances that were to come decades later.

     Borodin did not have decades: Rachmaninoff lived just days less than 70 years, but Borodin died at age 43. This makes the influence of Borodin’s symphonic and operatic output all the more notable. His three symphonies – the third’s two movements were orchestrated by Glazunov – all show copious melodic inventiveness and beautiful flow, within a structure that is conventional on the surface but, especially in the Second, repeatedly gives way to nationalism. The First is the lightest of the three – it has a fleetness reminiscent at times of Mendelssohn and, in the finale, echoes of Schumann – and also the longest, though it lasts just a bit more than half an hour. The Second reflects Prince Igor in many ways and was composed during the same seven-year period in which Borodin worked on the opera. Its changing tonalities give it a level of orchestral color that was especially attractive to later Russian composers. The two movements of the Third are a rather gentle opening one and a scherzo that Borodin had originally scored for string quartet – with a Trio that Glazunov himself chose, taking music that Borodin had written for Prince Igor but then rejected. There is not really much to the Third – it would certainly have emerged as a different work if Borodin had finished it – but the ebullient First and fervent Second can be quite wonderful. They are not quite at the highest level, though, in the new recoding by Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony. Although the works are certainly played well, the orchestra’s sound is not especially well-suited to the music: it is on the thin and transparent side, without the very lush string tone that shows these works off at their best. And while Schwarz is a creditable conductor, he is not a particularly idiomatic one, tending to handle all sorts of music in pretty much the same way rather than delving deeply into the details of form and orchestration that make a composer such as Borodin unique. The result is performances that are more workmanlike than inspired, meriting a (+++) rating – this is distinctively Russian music that would do better under a more Russophilic conductor.

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