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Symphony No 1 in D major 'From my homeland', Op 52
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The First Symphony is truly Slavonic in both its compositional style and its musical philosophy, wherein Bortkiewicz sought to create a magnificent collage of images from his now remote homeland. We find this work permeated with a nostalgic mood, yet at the same time with a hint of anxiety for its destiny (the composer was to be an outspoken critic of the Soviet authorities throughout his life). The symphony gained a measure of popularity during the composer’s lifetime and he even made a four-hand piano arrangement which was played at one of the Society meetings. It is one of his sunnier compositions, although we catch glimpses of the melancholy that seems to pervade so many of his works. The structure of the first follows the conventional four movements and we are fortunate that the composer left a series of notes with Van Dalen that illustrated the programme behind this work (detailed in Van Dalen’s book Russische muziek en componisten, second edition, 1950, pp104/5).

The first movement, Un poco sostenuto – Allegro, immediately awakens our senses and draws us into the composer’s imagery of his country. The main theme seems to portray a heavy burden, alarming yet dignified at the same time, and this is juxtaposed with the lyricism of the second theme creating a vibrant and impressive canvas. And yet, despite the strength of this movement, it ends in quiet reflection, as if of lingering memories. As Bortkiewicz wrote: ‘the first part of the symphony is about the tragedy, the passions, the suffering, the struggle that comes to rest in the presence of the fascinating, beautiful nature. In a small Andante the immense, monotonous steppe is transformed into music. The sorrow and the longing resounds through, after which everything spreads out, like a man getting his rest while he sleeps’.

The second movement, a scherzo, seems to draw upon Ukrainian dance themes and introduces to the symphony the merriment and joviality of a popular feast, a celebration of life in the rural villages of his country, people drawn together to enjoy the music-making of the skomarokhs, the village buffoon players. Bortkiewicz wrote: ‘the scherzo is a cheerful piece in which life in a Russian village is portrayed; for example balalaika choirs, of shepherds and their flocks—exuberant cheerfulness, lusty dances and the laughter of girls. The piece is of Mozartian joviality, but nevertheless very Russian. After the trio the scherzo is repeated, as a remembrance to the happy, cheerful Russian people …’.

The third movement is a prayer tempered with an almost overwhelming sense of sorrow—a lament of exile. Like the Second Symphony of Rachmaninov, this is the heart and soul of the symphony and its sense of loneliness and loss is profound. Here, according to Bortkiewicz, ‘the composer has expressed his sorrow. After a powerful outpouring of sorrow the theme of the first part is repeated (‘Fate’); full of longing for lost happiness, this part closed with the harrowing lamentation of the cellos’.

‘The finale’, wrote the composer, ‘represents a big popular festival, an annual fair or a carnival, as a reminiscence to happier days long gone. It is a lively place, the people are full of elation, dances of wild rhythmic abandon. Suddenly a frightening silence, after which a powerful crescendo, the main theme (‘Fate’) in all its greatness resounds and gradually dies away. With an apotheosis, the symphony ends impressively with the former hymn to the Tsar’.

Here in the final movement we enjoy the spectacle of a flamboyant and impetuous Cossack dance—dynamic, expressive, rushing headlong in a whirlpool of fiery movement. Then, all of a sudden, the opening motif of the first movement returns to complete the circle, and the symphony ends in a final salute to the land that Bortkiewicz remembered, a land under the rule of the Tsars.

Van Dalen was later to conclude that ‘the work is masterly, evenly sophisticated in its instrumentation and design, very colourful and full of variation. Here is no experiment of modernism, but here speaks an intense musical soul, which only wants to give genuine art’.

from notes by Malcolm Henbury-Ballan © 2002

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Details for CDA67338 track 2
Scherzo: Vivace
Artists
ISRC
GB-AJY-02-33802
Duration
7'39
Recording date
8 February 2002
Recording venue
City Halls, Candleriggs, Glasgow, Scotland
Recording producer
Andrew Keener
Recording engineer
Simon Eadon
Hyperion usage
  1. Bortkiewicz: Symphonies Nos 1 & 2 (CDA67338)
    Disc 1 Track 2
    Release date: September 2002
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