Alexander Borodin (1833-1887) is as well-known to chemistry masters and pupils as he is to music-lovers through such always-welcome pieces as the Polovtsian Dances (from Prince Igor), In the Steppes of Central Asia, Symphony No.2 (the First is also magnetic), and of course there is Wright & Forrest’s borrowing of Borodin for Kismet, which includes the usage of String Quartet No.2. Here, as written, the Goldner String Quartet gives a flowing account, although in the first movement just a little more poise (hairsbreadth stuff) would have been welcome, and I was occasionally troubled by thinness of tone in Dene Olding’s upper register. Nevertheless, this is lovely music, as is the whole work, whether the gossamer Scherzo with the haunting idea that became ‘Baubles, bangles and beads’ (such was to be Borodin’s Destiny), then the celebrated ‘Notturno’, not wallowed-in here, and, following a shadowy introduction – from moonlight to murk – the Finale is mostly animated, its motifs dexterously counterpointed.
The C-minor Piano Quintet doesn’t give up its secrets easily. That said it’s attractive, written in Italy during the summer of 1862 when Borodin was on holiday with his wife (they’d married the previous year and she had a fondness for the music of Chopin and Schumann). The Quintet opens with a solemn Andante, with moments of ardour, and one hears echoes of Mendelssohn, maybe suggestions of Brahms, too. The following Scherzo dashes and sparkles with the Trio yielding to intimate lyricism. The Finale is by far the longest movement, nearly fifteen minutes here, including the exposition repeat, music of contrasts, ambitious in design and carried through with sovereignty, ending majestically until a fade.
One-third of the Cello Sonata is by the late Mikhail Goldstein (he died in 1989), working from Borodin’s incomplete manuscript, dated 1860, and planned for himself to play. During the resolute and poetic first movement there emerges a tune (on the cello) that is a first-cousin to one in the Second Symphony; one wonders whether Borodin later re-used it (if varied) or Goldstein did some cribbing. The central movement is entitled ‘Pastorale’, a song-like reverie that embraces a cadenza ad lib, thoughtfully managed by Julian Smiles. A brief return to the first-movement’s Bach reference heralds the Finale, which otherwise juxtaposes a Presto scamper and expansive romanticism. Smiles and Piers Lane make a redoubtable partnership, although I wish the treble end of the piano was less dry-sounding, and also in the Quintet, although there is no doubting the splendid music-making or tangible recording.
This release is then a timely showcase for a composer who was a professional chemist with experience as a surgeon and who dabbled in science, and who founded the School of Medicine for Women in St Petersburg; he may have been a part-time musician but he bequeathed us some skilled and distinctive creations.