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Alexander BORODIN (1833-1887)
Symphony No. 1 in E-flat (1862-7) [31:51]
Symphony No. 2 in B minor (1869-75) [26:59]
Dresden Philharmonic/Michel Plasson
rec. Lukaskirsche, Dresden, 1992-3
Experience Classicsonline

Borodin's music seems never quite to have broken through to what I consider its deserved popularity. The Polovtsian Dances from the opera Prince Igor still turn up on Pops programs - and, of course, on record - but the B minor symphony continues to hover at the edges of the standard repertoire. The First and the incomplete Third - the latter realized by Glazunov - receive relatively little play.

I've always been partial to the old Melodiya/Angel (U.S.) LP of the E-flat symphony - its first stereo recording, I believe - with Gennady Rozhdestvensky leading the Moscow Radio Symphony. The orchestral playing was comparatively unsubtle, but the performance had an appealing color and vitality. Subsequent Western editions, in the complete cycles under Loris Tjeknavorian (RCA) and Andrew Davis (Columbia, later Sony), offered suave sonorities from London-based ensembles, but in those renderings the score itself seemed of less import. 

Plasson gets the piece off to a good start. The slow introduction feels a bit aimless - the composer's fault, not the conductor's - but Plasson's lithe, one-in-a-bar treatment of the first movement  has tremendous forward impetus, and the Dresden players execute it with enthusiasm and polish. It's hard to imagine the heavy Moscow Radio brasses managing the syncopations at Plasson's tempo.  The conductor slows down appropriately for the development's reflective episode, but after that the young Borodin's incomplete mastery of structure makes itself felt: the music rambles somewhat. 

The rest of the symphony goes better. The bouncy, airborne Scherzo has an infectious lilt. The strings at the opening of the slow movement are lighter in tone than the Moscow Radio strings, but they phrase sensitively; the English horn solos, which could easily be clichés, are haunting and atmospheric. This movement, too, threatens to ramble, but proceeds in a clear arc to the rising divided violins at the close. In the compact finale, Plasson returns to the athletic, driving manner of the first movement, and it steps along smartly - again, faster and lighter than the Russian orchestra could probably have managed - with contrasting moments of liquid expression. 

The Second Symphony is more concise and also more imaginative, melodically and metrically. Plasson has a good, "natural" feel for the piece. He doesn't overdo the Punch-and-Judy characteristics, or the portentousness, of the first movement's main theme; nor does he fall into the trap of rushing the Scherzo, where a tempo that seems right at the start makes hash of the syncopations shortly thereafter - cf. Rattle/EMI. The horn solo in the slow movement doesn't have quite the expressive depth of that in Ansermet's classic Decca account, but the playing is clean and purposeful. The Dresden woodwinds are a particular pleasure here, delicately, tenderly intoning the first-movement recapitulation and the Scherzo's Trio. 

Some tuttis in the E-flat Symphony sound a bit harsh; otherwise the sound is fine. I feel almost churlish pointing out that the Decca's late-1950s recording for Ansermet, in true stereo, is more glowing and vibrant.

Stephen Francis Vasta


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