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Prodigiously talented a composer as he may have been, Alexander Borodin's primary interest was in chemistry, and a good deal of his music ended up needing to be 'finished' by his colleagues and successors. Taking us from the miniature Requiem (a musical joke) to the Steppes of Russia, here Stokowski, Glazunov and Rimsky-Korsakov have done the honours.
The genesis of Borodin’s Requiem was in 1877. The composer had written a little Polka, into which he had incorporated a children’s theme known in Russia as 'Tati-tati' but universally beloved as 'Chopsticks'. In the manner of Dargomyzhsky’s Slavonic Tarantella for Performing with Those Who Cannot Play, the famous tune becomes a simple ostinato part for the second pianist.
'Mighty Handful' members Rimsky-Korsakov, Cui and Liadov were so enchanted with this clever Polka that they elected to write pieces themselves, using the same, incessantly repeated underlying 'Chopsticks' theme. In turn, Borodin, intrigued by the emerging composite set, added two more short vignettes of his own: the Requiem heard here and a March. Borodin had a great reputation within his circle for his humorous improvisations at the piano, and Stasov conjectures that these two pieces are probably transcriptions capturing Borodin’s spontaneous flights of fancy.
No public performance has ever been traced of Leopold Stokowski’s orchestral arrangement of the Requiem. The score and parts, however, which reside in the Stokowski Collection at the University of Pennsylvania, were provided for the present recording. Stokowski’s larger-than-life, highly-coloured orchestral palette manages to combine with the utter simplicity of Borodin’s theme and accompaniment to produce a result which is convincing in its power and majesty.
In Borodin’s original piano version, the words 'Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis' are indicated for a solo tenor voice and a male chorus. In this first recording, they have been incorporated as an addition to Stokowski’s purely orchestral setting.
Polovtsian Dances and Suite from Prince Igor
Borodin’s largest-scale composition during the 1860s and 70s was the opera Prince Igor. He worked on it intermittently for more than 18 years but never finished it. His initial interest had almost certainly been sparked by Musorgsky’s work on his own opera, Boris Godunov. The flame was further kindled by Vladimir Stasov, who hit upon the idea of a libretto based upon the mediaeval Russian nationalistic epic The Tale of Igor’s Campaign, which addressed itself to the struggle of Russian princes against hostile Polovtsian tribes. Borodin was excited by the subject and the jubilant Stasov began inundating him with an endless supply of source materials. Stasov felt that the project exactly matched Borodin’s musical make-up—essentially lyrical and marked by a strong leaning towards Russian orientalism—and thought that Borodin would, through this vehicle, create a successor to Glinka’s opera, Russlan and Ludmilla.
Unfortunately, within a year Borodin’s enthusiasm had waned, and it was only due to the constant cavilling of his friends that the opera gradually took shape. Anecdotes abound relating to Borodin’s faltering progress: Rimsky-Korsakov once asked him whether he had written anything that day. 'Yes', Borodin replied with complete earnestness, referring, as it transpired, to some correspondence he’d completed. When Borodin died, little of the third act had been composed and the Overture had never been written down. It fell to Glazunov to complete the missing act from the composer’s sketches, and it was also he who, thanks to a phenomenal musical memory, was able to reconstruct the Overture from his recollections of Borodin’s improvised performances at the piano.
The Chorus of the Polovtsian Maidens and the ensuing Dance open the second act of Prince Igor and reflect Borodin’s researches into Hungarian folk music, deemed necessary by the fact that the Polovtsians, when later driven north by the Mongols, integrated with the Magyar tribes and exerted a significant influence on the culture that became Hungary’s. The music given to the soprano soloist and women’s chorus is as poignant as the words they sing:
Starved of water, in the heat of the mid-day sun, the flower withers and dries.
The sun will set, night will come, the heat of the day will pass. Dew will fall, nourish the earth with its moisture. Our hapless heart is like the flower starved of water. Like the little flower beneath the dew our heart will be revived.
The short, lively Dance which follows was first performed on 3 December 1888; the orchestration was by Rimsky-Korsakov. The Polovtsian March was written in 1874 and also orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov after Borodin’s death. It was not heard until 5 November 1887, at a concert devoted to the memory of Borodin. (The programme also included the première of the Overture in Glazunov’s reconstruction.) The March opens the third act and signals the arrival of the Polovtsian Khan Gzak, whose victorious troops are returning with Russian captives. This recording, unusually, includes the sizeable off-stage brass band and men’s chorus called for in the full score:
Our army is coming home. Glory to our army!
Gzak comes from his victory! Glory to Khan Gzak!
The famous Polovtsian Dances, which conclude the second act of the opera, were drafted in the summer of 1875 but, as we might expect, were left un-orchestrated. Late in 1878, Rimsky-Korsakov announced them for inclusion in a Free Music School Concert planned for early 1879. He had already rehearsed them with the chorus and a rehearsal pianist, and a full orchestral score was now needed urgently so that the orchestral parts could be generated in time for the performance.
'In despair, I took Borodin to task', Rimsky-Korsakov relates. 'He wasn’t pleased about it either. Finally, losing all hope, I offered to help him with the orchestration. So he came to my place one evening, bringing the barely started full score of the Dances with him, and the three of us—for Liadov was there too—sorted it into sections and hastily began to orchestrate it to the end. For the sake of speed, we used pencil, not ink. We worked on into the small hours, and when at last we were finished, Borodin covered the sheets of the score with a thin layer of gelatine so that the pencil marks wouldn’t rub off. To make the sheets dry in time, we hung them up like washing on a string line, stretched across my study. In this ignominious way the piece was coaxed into readiness and, finally, sent off to the copyist.'
In the opera, the Polovtsian Khan Konchak commands his slaves and retainers to entertain Prince lgor, who is now his captive. The maidens sing:
Fly away, our native song, on the wings of the wind to our homeland. There, beneath the burning sky, the air is full of sweetness. In the valleys the roses bloom resplendently, and the nightingales sing in the green forests.
This gives way to a full chorus, allegro vivo, one of the most exciting moments in the entire choral repertoire:
Sing songs of glory to the Khan! Praise him!
Glorious is our Khan! Khan Konchak!
Nocturne from String Quartet No 2
The familiar Nocturne derives from the third movement, Andante, of Borodin’s String Quartet No 2, a work sometimes considered to be autobiographical in content. It was composed exactly 20 years after Borodin first met his wife in Heidelberg, and in its original form it is not difficult to hear a moving 'love duet' in the interplay of cello and violin.
Sir Malcolm Sargent’s well-known arrangement for string orchestra preserves this wistful and rather sentimental quality, but Rimsky-Korsakov’s seldom played version for solo violin and orchestra is more discursive in style: the soloist not only engages in lyrical dialogues with the orchestral strings, woodwinds and horn, but also gracefully embellishes the famous melody with delicate filigrees of considerable beauty.
It was first performed on 17 December 1887, and although it was intended merely as a pièce d’occasion, Rimsky-Korsakov was nevertheless disappointed that this gentle and beautifully crafted work did not command more attention. Its omission from the repertoire for violin and orchestra is rectified here with this premiere recording.
In the Steppes of Central Asia
Rimsky-Korsakov tells us that in the spring of 1879, two little-known entrepreneurs appeared in St Petersburg and approached Borodin, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky and others regarding a grandiose project they had devised to mark the Silver Jubilee of Tsar Alexander II. They wanted a series of tableaux vivants called 'The Genius of Russia and History', with the music for each being written by a leading Russian composer.
Most of the composers duly obliged, and Borodin’s response was the symphonic poem In the Steppes of Central Asia. Predictably, the Jubilee project came to nothing and of course no-one was paid, but some fine music saw the light and Borodin’s delightful orchestral miniature subsequently became one of his most popular works.
It is prefaced with Borodin’s own description of the scenario:
In the sandy steppes of Central Asia, the melody of a peaceful Russian song first resounds. The approaching clatter of horses and camels and the plaintive tones of an oriental song are then heard. A native caravan passes across the endless desert, guarded by Russian troops. Confident and unafraid, it follows its distant journey protected by Russian military might. The caravan moves further and further into the distance. The peaceful melodies of the Russians and the native people blend into one overall harmony, echoes of which linger over the steppes before finally fading away in the distance.
A sense of wide, open space is created by the violins, playing soft, sustained harmonics in a high register. Against this backdrop the two melodies hover, voiced in the horn, clarinet and most distinctively, the cor anglais (English horn). Rhythmic pizzicati in the lower strings cleverly conjure the rolling motion of the caravan.
In the Steppes of Central Asia was first performed on 27 August 1882 under the baton of Rimsky-Korsakov.
Borodin was happiest when writing in small-scale forms. Just as his earliest compositions were chamber works and piano miniatures, so he enjoyed returning to these genres during the last years of his life. Among the works of this final period are the Petite suite and the Scherzo in A flat, both dating from 1885. In its original form, the Petite suite comprises seven numbers for piano solo, to which Borodin attached a programme entitled 'Petit Poème d’Amour d’une Jeune Fille':
Sous la voûte de la cathédrale
On rêve à la société
On ne pense qu’à la danse
On pense à la danse et le danseur
On ne pense qu’au danseur
On rêve au chant d’amour
On est bercée par le bonheur d’être aimée
Beneath the vault of the cathedral
One dreams of high society
One thinks of nothing but the dance
One thinks of the dance and the dancer
One thinks only of the dancer
One dreams of the song of love
One is rocked by the happiness of being loved
That this programme alludes to an amorous episode in Borodin’s life, even his wife was forced to acknowledge in her memoirs. The composer’s remarks on the proof sheets of the various movements can easily be linked to the text of the poem:
Au couvent—The sound of cathedral bells and a Russian Orthodox Church chant.
Intermezzo—One starts dreaming of society life.
Mazurka rustique—The young lady begins to think of the dance.
Mazurka—One dreams of the dance … and the dancer. (The dancer of the young lady’s fantasy was undoubtedly the composer himself. Not only was Borodin a good dancer, Glazunov recalls, but he excelled in the Mazurka. Furthermore, the suggestion of the cello that is evoked through the piano’s tenor line is a clear reminder that Borodin was an able cellist.)
Rêverie—One no longer dreams of anything but the dancer; new feelings.
Sérénade—(Though no remarks appear on the proof sheets, this is evidently intended to represent the young lady’s 'song of love'. The principal theme is marked amoroso ed espressivo.)
Nocturne (designated Berceuse in the original manuscript)—One is rocked by the happiness of being loved.
Glazunov’s orchestration was completed in 1889. In this recording, the Intermezzo is omitted but Glazunov’s interpolation of Borodin’s Scherzo in A flat, which creates two outer flanks to frame the Nocturne, is preserved. Whilst it may disrupt the idea of Borodin’s original programme, it does meet a clear and, one might argue, deeper need of an orchestral piece: a Finale which is fast, lively and thoroughly engaging.
Philip Taylor © 2020