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Alexander BORODIN (1833-1887)
Symphony No. 1 in E flat (1867) [36:33]
In the Steppes of Central Asia (1880) [7:42]*
Symphony No. 2 in B minor (1869-77, 1879) [30:19]
Symphony No. 3 in A minor (compl. Alexander Glazunov) [19:39]
Bolshoi Theatre Symphony Orchestra/Mark Ermler
*Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra/Loris Tjeknavorian
rec. location not specified, 2000; *1994-6
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 94453 [44:08 + 49:58]

Full disclosure: Alexander Borodin is one of my favourite neglected composers; all right, you know his name; but when did you last hear his music in concert? From the time I heard Ernest Ansermet's Decca recording of the Second and Third Symphonies, I fell in love with this composer's melodic gift and sparkling, variegated colours. So, while I always look forward to hearing Borodin's music, I'm fussy about it.

Mark Ermler's cycle begins auspiciously. In the E-flat Symphony, the composer hasn't yet found "his" voice - it's Generic Romantic Symphony, Russian Nationalist division - but his melodies nonetheless lead the ear onward, while his sense of orchestral colour is already masterly. In Ermler's hands, the slow introduction builds inexorably to the pulsing syncopations of the main Allegro, avoiding the longueurs I noted in Plasson's performance (Berlin Classics 0013962BC), which I'd improperly blamed on the composer. The scampering Scherzo is set off by a warm, folk-like Trio, with conductor and players adroitly manoeuvring through the metrical irregularities. The Andante sings fervently, while the finale is, by turns, vigorous and delicate. It's a first-class performance, on a par with Rozhdestvensky's classic account (Melodiya and various licensings; try also his Chandos set. Ed.).

Unfortunately, in the B minor Symphony - arguably Borodin's masterpiece - Ermler's touch is less sure. The opening movement is basically fine, but the way Ermler rolls through the development sounds uncomfortably fast for the brassy flashback of the second theme. In fairness, the woodwinds handle the official recap of that same theme later on with delicacy and charm.

The Scherzo is a trap for conductors: too quick a tempo turns the climactic syncopations into scrambled eggs, with Rattle (EMI) the most egregious recent offender. Ermler errs in the opposite direction: he chooses a judicious starting tempo, but allows the movement to lose all momentum. The Andante begins with a unique hushed reverence, but it, too, gradually devolves into an uphill slog. The Finale, finally, has the right propulsive energy, and the trombone-and-tuba octaves at 2:14 are impressively brazen.

The start of the two-movement Third Symphony, completed by Glazunov from the composer's sketches, is so spacious it's practically becalmed; but the beautiful, expressive woodwinds hold attention, and the music eventually gets going. The quirky 5/8 Scherzo begins with the right sort of playful vitality, but it, too, loses impulse, so that, when the theme returns at 2:39, Ermler has to give it a little push back into the original tempo. The central section, practically a slow movement in its own right, is sensitively phrased.

The Bolshoi Orchestra, unlike some others, seems not to have been affected adversely by the post-Soviet exodus of players. The string tone remains warm and vibrant; the characterful woodwinds can sound full or delicate, as required. The brasses have, if anything, improved, taming their raw tonal edge while maintaining their impact and brilliance. Discipline is good.

As a filler, the producers have thrown in the tone-poem In the Steppes of Central Asia. Loris Tjeknavorian's performance is affectionate, though there are more polished renditions around. A few nervous horn attacks are of less moment than are the Armenian Philharmonic's tuning disagreements in the tutti at 3:12.

The sound is gorgeous in the Bolshoi recordings, though the producers haven't quite covered up splices at 1:59 of the B minor's slow movement and at 1:08 in its finale. In In the Steppes, it's clear enough, but less vivid.

At Brilliant Classics prices, this might be worth buying for Ermler's excellent First and for parts of his Third. Still, completists will want the CDs, or the original LPs (RL 25098), of Tjeknavorian's lovely RCA set from 1977. Dubbed "The Complete Orchestral Music," it adds Mlada, the Nocturne for strings, the Petite Suite, and selections from Prince Igor to the works recorded here (review), all suavely played by the "National Philharmonic", a London-based pickup group

Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.