EARLIER this year I took a sideways look at Alexander Borodin, one of my favourite Russian composers.
I love his music deeply, but it is a funny, rather insubstantial love affair, because Borodin didn't actually get very much music written. There are just three symphonies, and he did not even complete the third: it was completed by Glazunov after Borodin's death. There's the lovely overture-type piece, In The Steppes Of Central Asia, two string quartets, the opera Prince Igor (and Borodin did not finish that either), two string quartets and not much else.
As little music as there is, whenever Borodin's name hoves into view on the concert schedules, there is always something to say about the man or his music. The fact that, in their new concert season, Jonathan Morton and his Scottish Ensemble will play a written-up arrangement of the slow movement from Borodin's Second String Quartet, one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written, and that a fabulous new recording by Gianandrea Noseda and the Israel Phil of the Prince Igor Overture has just been released, brings Borodin firmly back into view.
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The first symphony never gets played. It is usually regarded as an eclectic starter of a symphony that owes much to Mendelssohn. That is rubbish: just because one movement is fast and fleet, and because a lot of Mendelssohn is fast and fleet, doth not a connection make. Listen to the thing. I do not hear Mendelssohn in it; I only hear not yet quite fully-formed Borodin.
But the most universal criticism of Borodin and the paucity of music he produced is he was "laboriously slow". Maybe he was, but we have to remember something fundamental about him: he was a part-time composer. Borodin had a proper job, a full-time one at that. He was a chemist by profession. Composition was strictly a spare time activity - until he met Mily Balakirev, composer and catalyst who somehow ignited the flame of inspiration in Borodin.
And here's a peculiar thing. Borodin was a member of a circle of composers who were christened The Five, the Mighty Handful or Kuchka. The other group members were Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky and the one who has really receded into obscurity, Cesar Cui. Now here's the point. All, at some time or another, had a day job, with music a sideline at most. And every one of them, separately, and one at a time, met Balakirev, who released something in them, triggering intense interest in developing and becoming part of a new school of Russian nationalist music that would look away from the dominance of Austro-German intellectualism and towards Russia and Asia for its influences and inspiration.
Just meet the characters in their normal lives. Balakirev, before he met Glinka, the real powder keg of nationalist thinking, was studying maths, not music. Mussorgsky had an army commission before meeting Balakirev and giving it up to focus on music. Rimsky-Korsakov was a graduate of naval cadet college, became a midshipman, then met Balakirev and gave it all up for music. And Cesar Cui trained at the Academy of Military Engineering, and taught there as a professor of Fortifications. Then he met Balakirev, and you know the rest. What a gang.