Revisit: Borodin Symphony No. 1 in E flat major

performed by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra under Gennady Rozhdestvensky

At this point, it’s incredible to believe the blog has been going for more than two years. I have been planning for some time to get around to revisiting some of the really really pitiful posts I wrote early in the days of the blog when I thought “I’ll listen to something every day and write about it.” If either of you from those days are still reading, you know how that went.
I struggled for a while with the idea of going back and ‘fixing’ those posts or just leaving them as they were, like finger paintings you’re embarrassed about years later.
I decided to leave them, and post ‘revisits’ of some of the old pieces now that I’ve gotten my head more around classical music. For a number of reasons, we haven’t gotten around to ANY of those reposts until now.
So, then, I would like to welcome you to our FIRST EVER revisit of a piece, the first time I will have “seriously” addressed a piece more than once.
The original article can be found here. And it is sad.
But here we are again, and we are going to give it another go. This is the first of (if I count correctly now) around four or five revisits we’ll be doing in the Russian series, as a number of those really early posts were of pieces by Russian composers who also made it into this Russian series we’re working on.
The original article (really completely empty-worded that spent more time on Balakirev and Rimsky-Korsakov than Borodin) expressed my enjoyment of the piece but shared little else. I hope to bring some more insight into this work before we address the real feature of this composer later this week.
The piece began in 1862, but took five years to complete, (partially, it seems as a result of his career as a chemist and later surgeon and founder of a school of medicine for women; busy guy) and the premiere was conducted by Borodin’s mentor, the seemingly everywhere Mily Balakirev. This AllMusic article states that “unfortunately, this freshman effort was not well received,” but Wikipedia’s article on Borodin’s second symphony references “the successful premiere of his first symphony in E-flat conducted by Mily Balakirev at the Imperial Russian Music concert in 1869.” The AllMusic article gives an 1868 premiere date. Maybe they’re different ‘premieres’….?
I’m not sure what to make of this discrepancy. Perhaps audiences and fans of The Five noticed that the piece betrays the composer’s influence from Western ideas behind its Russian voice. That could have made it a less successful work among those circles.
In listening to it more recently, I realize I have almost no recollection of it, despite having written (so very poorly about it). That’s more likely my fault than the
symphony’s, but that’s why we’re here today.
The symphony, although in E flat major, begins in the minor, a brooding dark thing that eventually builds and blossoms in to the lively major-key theme, in triple meter with a rhythmic personality and drive. The drive and personality in much of this symphony come more from strong, inventive rhythms rather than a plethora of sweeping melodies like we’d see from Tchaikovsky, but we do get sweeping melodies, too. Just not yet.
The second movement, the scherzo, is a truly wonderful thing, perhaps betraying Borodin’s German influence from Mendelssohn (or Schumann), a playful, jumpy, even celebratory movement, but still with a Russian flare to the trio, or at least folksy and quaint, before the scherzo returns to round out the movement.
The third movement, marked andante, is in great contrast with the previous two, quiet and lyrical, tender even, more like the trio. It’s expressive, delicate. It opens with a cello solo (in this recording it’s a solo; others seem not to be [like this version with Gergiev in Rotterdam], and there’s no solo marked in the score, but I like the solo version better), and flute and other lines enter thereafter, including bassoon. If there was any doubt that Borodin could write killer lyrical tunes, he’s proven he can. It’s not just about smart rhythms; he’s got it all.
This is beautifully Romantic, really wonderful writing. It feels spacious, but somber, like it’s been around the block, seen a lot of things, and has stories to tell. It sounds mature, and the most definitively Russian movement so far. I mean, we get to like, Rachmaninoff-esque glory here, really spectacular, and the movement ends with a sweet, quiet ascension from muted violins.
The final movement returns to the cheer of the first, with the exception that Schumann feels much more present here. A Russian Schumann, obviously. There’s youth, vitality, inventiveness, freshness, confidence, and joy in this movement, and really throughout the whole symphony.
The thing that’s perhaps most refreshing about this entire piece is that it isn’t complicated, it isn’t overdone. It’s clean, solid, straightforward ecstatic writing; there’s no complex variations or structure to get bogged down in. It’s just really good, bold, almost fun (even though that word kind of has a connotation of cheap thrills) writing and a meaty, good finish to this youthful, enjoyable symphony.
There’s a long handful of underperformed symphonies that conductors and orchestras would probably reach for before Borodin’s first, but I’m not really so sure why. Like some other works, perhaps, maybe it’s not that it’s not lacking anything as much as that it just doesn’t have that really special something. It’s got all the things it needs, but it’s easy for it to get lost among many other things, including some of the composer’s own other works. I’d love to hear this in the concert hall.
We talked last week about Tchaikovsky’s assimilation of Russianness with Westernness, as well as his own penchant for long, big singing melodies. For whatever reason, Borodin seemed not to have this conflict, although he did have his own issues with his ‘real job’ as a chemist getting in the way of his composing career. He also worked under the aegis of The Five, and could perhaps ‘get away with’ more than Tchaikovsky could. As we will (likely) discuss later, he also had a love of chamber music, something none of the rest of The Five could abide. As forward-thinking goes, Borodin was the most daring member of that circle.
While this is a really nice work, it is (perhaps not so tragically) overshadowed by the composer’s second symphony, a piece we shall get to on Thursday. See you then.

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