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Sergei BORTKIEWICZ (1877-1952)
Symphony No. 1 in D major, Op. 52 "From my Homeland" [39.10]
Symphony No. 2 in E flat major, Op. 55 [32.35]
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Elizabeth Layton, leader
Martyn Brabbins, conductor
Recorded in City Hall, Glasgow, on 7-8 February 2002. DDD


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Sergei Bortkiewicz spent the majority of his creative life living in exile. Fate seemed to constantly put him in the wrong place at the wrong time. A thorough Germanophile, the composer took up residence in Leipzig in 1900 for advanced musical studies. From 1904 until the outbreak of the First World War, he lived happily in Berlin, but rising anti-Russian sentiment forced him back to his birthplace. He had no sooner had he taken up residence and begun to establish a career in Russia, when the October Revolution of 1917 forced him to flee again. He and his family escaped to Turkey in 1919. Although he met again with success there, he decided to move his family to Vienna in 1922. His passion for things German caused him to move again to Berlin, this time via a short stint in Paris. In Berlin, Litolff published a number of his works and he enjoyed several successful premieres. The terrible conditions in Germany under the Nazis led him to flee again to Vienna.

The horrors of the Second World War had a terrible physical effect on both Bortkiewicz and his wife. She suffered from manic depression from the end of the war until her death in 1960. The composer underwent surgery in 1952 for a chronic stomach ailment, from which he never recovered.

What we have here is an unsung master composer. Although by no means a modernist, Bortkiewicz’s is a voice of originality, born out of the tradition of Lyapunov and Tchaikovsky and in a direct line with Rachmaninov, Scriabin and Medtner. The two symphonies presented here (there are sketches for a third, but it was never completed) are magnificent sound portraits. Haunted by absence from his homeland, the Symphony number one is a sound sculpture wrought from pure Ukrainian clay. Cast in four movements, this is music that is rich in both sweeping, dramatic gestures and in grand melodies. The second symphony is much darker in hue, and is somewhat reminiscent in style of Tchaikovsky’s sixth. Both works, while grand and romantic is scale are supremely wrought, neither being overindulgent in emotion for emotion’s sake.

Martin Brabbins and the BBC Scottish Symphony give fine readings of these sadly neglected works. They are beautifully paced with exactly the correct balance between pure pathos and unbridled joy. Brabbins paints orchestral landscapes with finely crafted brushes and his orchestra responds to every subtlety of shading that he can create.

It is regrettable that this composer remains such an enigmatic figure, much of the information about his life and work having been destroyed in the inferno of war. We are fortunate that recent scholarship has turned up a number of works heretofore thought lost, and we can only hope that enterprising musicians like Brabbins will continue to give us such fine performances to enjoy.

Hyperion, a company that is practically unsurpassed in the realm of quality productions, comes through here with their customary shade of perfection. We owe this fine label tremendous gratitude for superb recorded sound, excellent scholarly notes, and most of all, an introduction to some wonderful music that has for far too long been consigned to obscurity.

Recommended without a moment’s hesitation.

Kevin Sutton

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