Mighty Five aside, not much at all exists in the catalogue for poor old Borodin, especially on vinyl. Of course the perennial favorite for pops purposes is Prince Igor, and The Steppes of Central Asiawhich is tuneful enough but really exhausts all it has to say in about four bars (although Ravel made that work). I’m sure there an no end of acceptable versions of it out there, but my own, by coincidence, really, is Solti’s from his audiophile favorite “Romantic Russia” which has gotten every remastered/reissue treatment in the book. I’ve never actually heard the SXL or even any of the Deccas, but for years was entirely happy with the London 1ED, which I mainly had for the rousing and really unparalleled Russlan and Ludmilla — say what you will about Reiner’s, but he always strikes me as cold and uninteresting. I’ve head “Festival” in a 1S and it doesn’t change a thing. The orchestra and direction are just antiseptic, period. Solti’s not a favorite of mine either — he’s always racing! — but it certainly works in Russlan (though Plentev does a great version on CD, the RNO’s debut album from 1994). Can’t find it on YouTube, which is odd, perhaps Putin’s trolls got ride of his stuff because he’s not a lackey like Gergiev. But that’s another story. One of the very few MFSLs I own is Romantic Russia, and the Steppes on there is fine, with sound truly as clear as day and not the standard CD-pressed-onto-vinyl that I get my grumpy ears detect with most so-called audiophile reissues.
As for Borodin’s Symphonies, the Second is the one of any real note, and has for ages been the victim of critical dismissal, hence a dearth of recordings. On vinyl there are just a couple of serious artists recorded besides Ansermet (who did it in both mono and stereo) with the OSR, and the stereo version is on all kinds of lists, and deservedly so, so I’ll start with that. My copy is a 1ED blueback, not perfect but pretty close, and indeed it does have some real dynamic impact. But somewhat to my surprise the first movement lacks some of the read attaca oomph one might have expected from this conductor. All in all it’s a bit tame (?) — but here I’m definitely biased by the version I learned the piece on, as well as my dark horse (see below) — but for stereo versions my top pick is by far Ashkenazy’s CD with the RPO from the early ’90s, which takes the opening chords with as much intensity as he did — at the same time and with the same orchestra — as the final chords in the closing of the first movement of Walton’s First, also a superb record. There’s a real parallel in the way the Borodin First mvt. starts and the Walton First mvt. ends. Ashkenazy nails them both.
Ansermet doesn’t quite pack the punch Ashkenazy does in both places (the key chords in the Walton finale of Mvt. I are at 13:30). The rest of the piece is great, especially the scherzo, though even there I still prefer Ashkenazy. The Prince Igor Overture is fine too, though here again I might even like Pletnev better, also on that 1994 CD. But Ansermet is at his finest here, to be sure — elegant and dramatic, polished and purposeful. And at least he spares us the Danes, Stranger in Paradise, etc. etc., let’s leave that to Tony Bennett.
The dark horse with the Borodin Second is a very early (1953) Columbia with Mitropoulos and the NYPO (performing as the Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York) paired with Tchaikovsky’s Suite No. 1. My copy is a 1ED blue label and plays perfectly without any noise at all — a rarity. I actually prefer this interpretation to Ansermet, in terms of energy and vigor, who all too often blurs the edges in the interest of his trademark glorious noise. His first movement is perhaps a bit erratic, with the presto attacas, which Ashkenazy nails, contrasted a bit too much with the second subject. But this is a wild ride of a performance, from start to finish. It’s edge of your seat stuff, as was often the case with this underrated (and underrecorded) conductor. I do feel his reputation with the
audiophile set suffers because what little he did record was in mono. But he’s really unparalleled here, as he is in some Shostakovich. There’s a completeness to the work in terms of sheer urgency that Ansermet certainly does not capture, and Ashkenazy does to an extent — but it’s almost hard to compare these two because the difference in sonic impact is so dramatically different.
As for the Borodin Third, I guess there’s a reason he never completed it and Glazunov at least figured it worth orchestrating. Nothing to see here, move along. And there are a couple of Firsts out there, including Ashkenazy’s valiant effort, but it’s never held my interest. As someone once said to me of Bax, a little goes a long way — longer with Borodin than Bax, to be sure, but not too far! The Ashkenazy disc is the one to get if you still have a CD player, and the Ansermet LP is a classic for a reason. But Mitropoulos has him beat, in my book, and on vinyl you can get this a lot cheaped, though finding a copy in really good shape is easier said than done.
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