Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Alexander Borodin: In the Steppes of Central Asia; Polovtsian Dances

I am a composer in search of oblivion, and I'm always slightly ashamed that I compose.
--Alexander Borodin

Today we're going to listen to two works by Alexander Borodin: the lesser-known In the Steppes of Central Asia, and the popular and well-known Polovtsian Dances.
Neeme Jarvi and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra
Tchaikovsky (1841-1904); Borodin (1833-1887); Rimsky Korsakov (1844-1908)

Tchaikovsky: 1812 Overture and Marche Slave
Alexander Borodin: Polovtsian Dances and In The Steppes of Central Asia
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: Russian Easter Festival Overture and Capriccio Espagnol
Deutsche Grammophon, 1990

Borodin never gets top billing in symphony concerts or on classical music CDs, so it shouldn't be a surprise that he's on the undercard on today's CD. Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, a work well-known to the point of parody, gets to be the headliner.

It shouldn't be this way. If you take the time to have one close listen to Borodin's infectious Polovtsian Dances, you'll wonder why the 1812 Overture is so much more popular.

Borodin was a man of immense talents, but music was arguably one of his weakest subjects. He was a brilliant scientist (one of Russia's most prominent), a gifted and popular university teacher, and an early supporter of education for women--but he was an untrained and undereducated composer.

Unfortunately for us, Borodin died at the relatively young age of 53, and because of the many obligations of his scientific career, he did not compose that much music over the course of his brief life. We are all the poorer for it.

Listener notes for Borodin's In the Steppes of Central Asia:
1) Borodin composed this seven-minute work (it's usually called a tone poem for lack of a better descriptor) in honor of the 25th anniversary of Tsar Alexander II's coronation.

2) Off-key clarinet alert from 2:15 to 2:3o. Is the clarinetist from the Philly Orchestra sitting in on this performance? Another slightly less off-key solo from the clarinetist comes at 6:40. I'm already dreading the famous clarinet solo in the opening minutes of the Polovtsian Dances.

3) The flute player answers the clarinet solo at the very end of Steppes and has no trouble at all with intonation.

Listener notes for Borodin's Polovtsian Dances:
1) Well, I can't say our clarinetist flubs the well-known solo here (at 2:17-2:30), but I've heard it played better by a high-schooler at an all-state band performance (I'm serious). Note also that the flute really fumbles the following call-and-answer solo shared with the piccolo.

2) One of my favorite parts of this work is at 3:30, when the third dance starts. The tympani gets the tension going, then the tuba explodes with shockingly powerful downbeats beneath the rest of the orchestra. I love that.

3) It's a little strange listening to this work with a chorus singing along with it. I've only performed (and heard it performed) with instruments only. But these dances were originally part of the opera Prince Igor that Borodin wrote (and never finished by the way), so this is how the Dances were originally written.

4) The former trumpet player in me was never all that happy with the boring trumpet parts of the Polovtsian Dances, but now that my playing days are over, perhaps this isn't such a good measure of a classical music work any more, is it?

5) The interlocking solos between the oboe and clarinet (they occur twice during the work, at 5:46 and again at 8:38--and then the strings play the same parts a third time at 9:28) turn out to be really effective tension-builders. Sometimes the really unusual and creative musical effects like these can only come from a composer who spent his life as an untrained outsider.


Anonymous said...

Welcome back. I enjoy your commentary.

Daniel said...

Thanks so much for the feedback.

Took a bit of a break to concentrate on my primary blog Casual Kitchen, some other writing projects, and to do a little traveling. But I'm planning to be back with some more regularity now.