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Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Kismet of Borodin

From the Vault Dept.: From the series of program booklets I wrote for the sadly defunct Dorian Recordings label, here’s the St. Petersburg Quartet’s Borodin. I sat in on one of the recording sessions, and the players were as astonishing in their craft as they were charming between takes.


ST. PETERSBURG LONG VIED with Moscow as Russia’s most prominent city, and it carries its own wealth of distinguished history and splendor. It was founded, by Peter I the Great, in 1703, and went through a series of renamings – Petrograd in 1914,  Leningrad in 1924, St. Petersburg again in 1991. It sits at the top of the Gulf of Finland and includes some 40 delta islands, and has been vital seaway for the country’s trade. The first Russian steamship was built here in 1813; the country’s first railway opened in 1837, with a line to Moscow established in 1851.

As the hometown to both composer Alexander Borodin and the ensemble performing his works on this disc, St. Petersburg resonates throughout this recording. It was where Borodin was born, on Nov. 12, 1833, to an elderly nobleman – although not officially. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina reminds us that it was the fashion of aristocrats in that time and place to keep young mistresses. When Prince Gedianov’s son was born to his 24-year-old concubine, the boy was officially registered as the scion of one of the Prince’s serfs, Porfiry Borodin.

Alexander’s mother homeschooled the boy, who grew fluent in several languages and several musical instruments, flute and cello among them. He specialized in chemistry at the Medico-Surgical Academy while also studying zoology, botany, anatomy, and crystallography. He received his doctorate in 1858 for a dissertation On the Analogy of Arsenical with Phosphoric Acid. He also was fond of building his own fireworks. Among scientific circles, he achieved world fame through his research on aldehydes. By 1864 he was a full professor at the Academy; at the same time, he’d joined forces with other like-minded musicians and, at their prodding, was at work on his first symphony.

St. Petersburg was the locus for “The Five,” whose ranks also included Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakoff, Cui, and Balakirev – of whom only Balakirev was a professional musician.  They shared an urge to explore Russia’s own music, rather than follow the Germanic precepts of the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Glinka’s 1836 opera A Life for the Tsar, with its use of native folk elements, inspired this surge of nationalism, which was so militant that the only-moderately nationalistic Tchaikovsky wasn’t invited to make it “The Six.”

OF THE GROUP, none pursued the love of melody more avidly than Borodin, who had a keen ear for the folk elements in the music around him – and a sense of the music of Russia’s antiquity. Alla Aranovskaya, first violinist of the St. Petersburg Quartet, notes, “in Borodin’s music you can find a unique conglomerate as different kinds of feeling come together. At first it may sound really Russian, then there will be a melody from middle Asia, with many different reflections.”

His catalogue of published works is small, no doubt owing to the fact that he spent more time attending scientific conferences than in writing music. During his early training, he went to Germany to work and study in the laboratories there, and made his first serious attempts at composing – very much modeled on the music of Mendelssohn – while living among fellow Russians in Heidelberg. There he met his wife, pianist Catherine Protopopov, who introduced him to the music of Schumann, which also proved strongly influential.

His wife’s severe asthma forced an unusual domestic life upon them. She spent only short periods in the bustling but damp St. Petersburg apartment that adjoined the Academy, preferring to travel or live at her mother’s house in Moscow. The devoted Borodin wrote to her on almost a daily basis, and four volumes of his letters were posthumously published.

He displayed an unusually advanced attitude towards women. Relentlessly faithful, he spurned the sometimes overwhelming attentions of female admirers, such as a woman who dogged him and his bride-to-be on a trip through Italy in 1862, and another in 1868 who blamed her psychosomatic illnesses on Borodin’s neglect. Perhaps he was too kind for his era: he believed that women should be the equal of men when it came to medical studies, and in 1872 he helped open doors at the Academy for them to do just that.

After a first unsuccessful attempt at writing an opera, he began work on his Symphony No. 2 in 1869; shortly after that he started on what’s regarded as his masterpiece, the opera Prince Igor, which contains the well-known Polovetsian Dances.

His legacy includes undeniable influences on composers as different as Ravel and Liszt. He met the latter in 1877 and they hit it off well enough that Borodin dedicated to Liszt the tone poem he wrote three years later: In the Steppes of Central Asia, a work that became one of his most popular.

As the 1880s progressed, however, the seemingly tireless Borodin succumbed to the strains of overwork. He suffered a series of heart attacks and a bout with cholera. His wife’s health also was declining.
Alexander Borodin

On the evening of February 26, the last day of Carnival Week, in 1887, he attended a costume ball for the faculty of the Academy. Dressed as a Russian peasant, as he stood outside shortly after midnight, talking with friends, he suddenly dropped dead. Prince Igor was left unfinished, but he’d left notes enough for it to be effectively completed later by Rimsky-Korsakoff and Glazunov.

Nevertheless, with the passing of Borodin a distinct phase in Russian music came to an end. A monument in Moscow carries tribute to him and his accomplishments: on one side you can read about his accomplishments as a scientists; another notes his achievements as a musician.

Borodin’s music got a surprising kick into the canon of popular song when songwriters Robert Wright and George Forrest were hired to provide a score for the musical version of “Kismet” that premiered in 1953. Having already used the music of Grieg in “Song of Norway,” they were asked to use music by Tchaikovsky, which they found unsuitable, or Rimsky-Korsakoff, which they’d already used (in the film “Balalaika”). Vernon Duke suggested they try Borodin, an idea that clicked immediately.

Melodies and musical stylings were drawn from the first two symphonies, Prince Igor (three songs, including “Stranger in Paradise,” came out of the Polovetsian Dances), and other works; the String Quartet No. 2 yielded tunes for two songs: “Was I Wazir?” and “And This Is My Beloved.”

A LITERATURE OF RUSSIAN chamber music was almost nonexistent by the time of Borodin; it was considered academic stuff, and composers like Cui and Rimsky-Korsakoff contributed only sporadically. Tchaikovsky’s three string quartets seem to have broken the dam, especially when Borodin followed suit and produced his two.

Writing of the string quartets, Alfred Swan notes in his book Russian Music (W.W. Norton, 1973): “All the Russian self-torture, love of sacrifice, soul-searching are exorcized by Borodin’s immense loading of sheer primeval force and joyous optimism.”

Borodin paid special attention to the forms that Haydn developed when he constructed his first quartet, a vigilance he relaxed slightly when it came to the Quartet No. 2.

The String Quartet No. 1 in A Major was written between 1874 and 1879, and was dedicated to Rimsky-Korsakoff’s wife. It bears the subtitle “Angeregt durch ein Thema von Beethoven,” which means (angeregt being a word of many shadings) that the piece is enlivened or animated by a Beethoven theme. The theme in question is stated by the viola in the last movement of the Quartet No. 13 in B-flat Major, Op. 130, which is echoed in the first theme of the first movement of Borodin’s quartet.

There’s another St. Petersburg connection here: The Beethoven quartet was the last of three written for from the 27-year-old Prince Nicholas Galitzin, an amateur cellist who lived in St. Petersburg but knew Beethoven’s music from time spent in Vienna (he also made quartet transcriptions of Beethoven’s piano sonatas).

Although this wasn’t Beethoven’s last quartet, the final movement was a later addition, replacing the “Grosse Fuge.” As it turned out to be the Beethoven’s final composition, Borodin may well have been paying tribute to Beethoven’s music in general.

There’s an exotically Oriental flavor in much of Borodin’s music, punctuated by feelings of wild abandon. This quartet, in the opinion of many, exemplifies such characteristics. “The music in this quartet is a bridge,” says Aranovskaya, “between Prince Igor, especially the Polovetsian Dances, to the emotion of music from Mongolia and Persia. You get a feeling of soldiers jumping on horses.”

In contrast to the sweeping romanticism of his Quartet No. 2, Borodin informs this piece with a solid classical structure and an impressively intricate design. The thematic element noted above recurs in the second and final movements, often in fragments supported by deft polyphonic writing.

Writing in Walter Wilson Cobbett’s Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music (Oxford University Press, 1929), M.D. Calvocoressi notes that “the work is very different in spirit and quality from any instrumental music produced in Russia during the early (1880s); it shows ... a rare introspective power.”

“He was very influenced by the Russian east, middle Asia,” says St. Petersburg Quartet violist Aleksey Koptev.  “Borodin’s grandfather belonged to that culture, and he knew and felt that music. You can feel that national color of the Russian east, especially in the first quartet, where we hear Borodin’s wild kind of nature.

“The second quartet is more about the society of the 19th century. Sophisticated people, noble people.”

A Moderato introduction gives way to the first quartet’s first theme, the treatment of which immediately shows Borodin’s contrapuntal skill. An expressive second subject sets up not only the fugato that appears toward the end of the exposition section, but also anticipates the trio in the scherzo. The end of the movement has a lightness from the use of harmonics, an effect achieved by pressing the fingertip lightly at specific intervals on the strings.

Calvocoressi finds in the flow of thematic material in this movement “a quality peculiar to Borodin – the almost incredible simplicity, ease, and sense of fitness with which he combines motifs do not seem, rhythmically or harmonically, conceived with a view to association, nor even particularly suited for it.”

Music of a Russian folk character emerges in the recapitulation, a tune that also appears as a dance in Glinka’s Russlan and Ludmilla.

Says Aranovskaya, “I think of the beginning of this movement as sunrise somewhere in a wild place. Russia’s history has 300 years of Mongolian colonization. An army of the Mongolians traveled in small houses that they moved from place to place, and I picture that one of these soldiers in his small house is looking at the sunrise.”

The opening of the slow movement also begins contrapuntally, with a theme that foreshadows the slow movements of the quartets by Ravel and Debussy, before the section eases into a fugato. The scherzo is a speedy Prestissimo in 3/8 time, with a contrasting Trio of fairy-tale-like whimsy, making difficult use of harmonics. “There’s a very aristocratic melody in the Trio,” says Aranovskaya. “He used this motif in Prince Igor very often. I spent seven years in the Kirov Theater orchestra, and got to know this opera very well.”

Avoiding the more conventional Rondo, Borodin cast the Finale in sonata form, giving its melodies what’s been termed a barbaric sense with Tartar-like influences, including a reworking of the opening theme of the first movement. Although the piece achieved success from its first performances onward, once the composer’s next quartet appeared it was doomed to remain in the shadow of its more indulgently melodic younger sibling.

ALTHOUGH THE PIECE is often thought to have been finished in the last year of his life, Borodin began work on the String Quartet No. 2 in D Major in July 1881, finishing at the end of the following month – which was his fastest work on any composition. He dedicated it to his wife, as a celebration of 20 years of marriage; it was published only posthumously.

The cello announces a graceful main theme that invites further development, but this piece (in contrast to the first quartet) relies more on fresh melody than on melodic invention. “In the first movement, I hear Turgenev,” says Aranovskaya. “There is a type of character called a ‘Turgenev girl,’ a very virginal type. The first theme is like that style of girl. The second theme is more like Mussorgsky, from Khovanchina: very simple, without aggression.”

There’s a striking difference between the St. Petersburg Quartet’s version of the second movement, a scherzo, than that of other groups. As Aranovskaya explains, “Many quartets play this quickly, but it’s not a real scherzo. I imagine pictures of a Sunday in the park in St. Petersburg, with parents strolling around the small lake with their children – a sunny day with parasols twirling. And then there’s a beautiful waltz, almost not like a real dance, but a dance in a dream.”

Had he written nothing but the Notturno movement that follows, Borodin would have been enshrined in music-lovers’ heaven. It was used by Tcherepnin in a ballet and set for orchestra in countless arrangements. Although he’s easier on the polyphonic writing in this piece, there is much use of imitation in this movement. “I hear melodies in this from Persia,” says Aranovskaya. “Listen for the use of grace notes.”

She finds the last movement more Asian in character, “suggesting several pictures: at the  beginning it’s early morning and the cock crows, like the one you hear in Rimsky-Korsakoff’s Le Coq D’Or.” The main theme of the finale is hinted first in the violins, then in viola and cello, before those elements combines into the full-blown melody of the rondo. And there’s a resemblance to the finale of Beethoven’s Quartet No. 16, although it’s hard to tell if this is just coincidence.

NOT SURPRISINGLY, the St. Petersburg String Quartet has played these pieces many times in concerts all over the world. Founded in 1985 by graduates of the Leningrad Conservatory, they soon won First Prize at the All-Soviet Union String Quartet Competition, which led them to the First International Shostakovich Competition for String Quartets, held in Leningrad in 1987. The young group won prizes enough to launch them on a concert tour of Russia.

As the Leningrad String Quartet, they traveled to Tokyo in 1989 and won a silver medal and special prize at the International Competition of Chamber Ensembles; shortly thereafter, they made their first-ever visit to the U.S.A. as artists-in-residence at the Musicorda Festival and String Program in Massachusetts.

St. Petersburg String Quartet
A seemingly unending series of travels, prizes, and recordings followed. In 1991, their native city changed its name and the ensemble followed suit. They became Quartet in Residence at Ohio’s Oberlin Conservatory of Music in 1997, a position they have held in subsequent years. As Aranovskaya explains, they enjoy having a base of operations in the U.S., “because most of our concerts are in this country, sometimes as many as a hundred concerts a year. When we were in Russia, our manager couldn’t prepare such a number of concerts.”

In 1998, they made their debut in London's Wigmore Hall, made Canadian debuts in Montreal, Toronto, and Ottawa, and appeared on Lincoln Center's “Great Performances” series and the 92nd Street Y in New York. They perform regularly at many of the most prestigious series and music festivals across North America, Europe and Asia, including repeat invitations to Caramoor (NY), Piccolo Spoleto, Music Mountain and many others.

The quartet members include Alla Aranovskaya, first violin, who was born and raised in St. Petersburg. “My parents told me that when I was two and a half years old, I duplicated with one finger the melody from a piece I heard my sister practicing on our small piano. My parents immediately started me on piano lessons. When I was turned six, I was taken to a music school, but all of the piano openings were taken and only violin openings remained. So I started the violin.”

Second violinist Ilya Teplyakov also has studied the instruments since he was six. In 1973 he was accepted into the Rimsky-Korsakov School, a music academy for gifted children. Since graduating, he worked in a musical theater before joining the St. Petersburg Philharmonic. During that time, he was also soloist with the Kurgan Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra. In 1988, he was invited to join the quartet. Ilya has been married to pianist Irina Teplyakova and has two daughters, Veronica and Ekaterina. Besides spending time with his family, he enjoys literature and theater, tennis and automobiles.

Born in 1973, violist Aleksey Koptev studied in the Rimsky-Korsakov Music School in St. Petersburg, Russia. At 16, he won the Poltava Young Artists Competition in the Ukraine, then began studies at the St. Petersburg State Conservatory. While a student, Mr. Koptev soloed with the St. Petersburg Conservatory Orchestra, performing the concertos by Bartók, Martinu, and Handel. In 1998, Koptev was awarded a scholarship to study at Indiana University School of Music. He was accepted into the Artist Diploma program and studied with the former violist of the Cleveland Quartet, Atar Arad. His interests are theatre (his mother was an actress), soccer, and swimming in lakes.

Says cellist Leonid Shukaev: “I was born in the most beautiful city in the world – St. Petersburg. When I was six, I started studying music. My first cello teacher was Valentin Elin. I had other interests such as math and biology, but I chose to pursue music and entered the Rimsky-Korsakoff Music College. While I was in college, I became very interested in chamber music and studied with Vissarion Soloviev, the violist from the Taneyev String Quartet. During the second year of school, I won first prize in a competition for all chamber ensembles from musical colleges in Russia. I also have a strong interest in nature and philosophy, which help me to better understand myself and the world around me. My wife, Nadezhda Shabanina, is a singer, and we have two sons, Armand and Tioma.”

Borodin: The String Quartets / St. Petersburg String Quartet

Dorian Recordings DOR-90307

– 10 June 2001

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