Chamber music didn’t figure particularly strongly among The Mighty Handful, who established a Russian Nationalist school, which incorporated native themes and folk lore into symphonic and orchestral music. In fact, their only chamber piece to enter the mainstream chamber repertory is featured on this CD: Borodin’s Second String Quartet in B Minor.
A mature work which, unlike so much of his oeuvre, Borodin actually managed to complete, it is still beguilingly beautiful after all these years, surviving Kismet (whose music I love), and is beautifully and affectionately played by the Goldners. This foray into Borodin’s obscure chamber music is highly rewarding.
The companion works are not new to CD but Borodin’s Piano Quintet (there’s a recording of it by Martha Argerich and “friends” at the 2014 Lugano Festival) and his Cello Sonata are likely to be terra incognita to most people.
None of the music featured here is characterised by the traditional, uniquely Slavic sense of yearning, especially in the Piano Quintet where they are joined by pianist and regular collaborator Piers Lane. This early work is sprightly charm personified. Though it’s not in any sense salonistic, the spirit of Mendelssohn hovers over much of it, and the players have its measure.
The early Cello Sonata exists in an incomplete form in Mikhail Goldstein’s reconstructed version, and is another winner – something for Steven Isserlis to get his bow into perhaps? But he’ll be doing well to surpass Julian Smiles’ performance here.
The comparative novelties here are Borodin’s Piano Quintet in C minor and his Cello Sonata in B minor—comparative, that is, in relation to the Second String Quartet, widely popular and widely recorded. However, neither the Quintet nor the Sonata is by any means unknown on disc. The Quintet featured compellingly on ‘Martha Argerich and Friends: Live from the Lugano Festival 2014’ with Alexander Mogilevsky as pianist (Warner, 8/15); the Cello Sonata was included alongside works by Rachmaninov and Shostakovich on a terrific 2011 disc from Alexander Chaushian and Yevgeny Sudbin (BIS, 8/11).
In fact, this new CD of the Piano Quintet, Cello Sonata and Second Quartet from the Goldner Quartet and Piers Lane replicates exactly the programme of a 2011 Pražák Quartet release with Michal Kanka as soloist in the Cello Sonata and Search Results Jaromír Klepáč as pianist, well reviewed in Gramophone at the time (Praga Digitals, 9/11). However, newcomers intrigued by Borodin’s forays into chamber music will derive considerable satisfaction from the way that the Goldners and Piers Lane pinpoint the characteristics of the Quintet, an early, pre-First Symphony work but one that, for all its occasional nods to Mendelssohn, has the distinct imprint of folk-tinged melody that was to be one of Borodin’s mainstays.
The Cello Sonata, which has survived only in an incomplete set of parts and is known today in the reconstructed version by Mikhail Goldstein, again shows the direction in which Borodin’s melodic thinking was going: in the central movement particularly Julian Smiles and Piers Lane capture its warm romantic glow. That applies, too, to the Nocturne of the Second Quartet, a work of maturity and one that the Goldners interpret with a winning lyrical touch, well-projected energy and an instinctive feel for the musical language.
A generous Borodin chamber triptych comprising two youthful offerings and a bona fide masterpiece. The Piano Quartet from 1862 is not without its attendant quirks, most notably a curiously lopsided structure (the engagingly garrulous Allegro moderato finale—given here with the exposition repeat—lasts more than twice as long as the first two movements combined). Still, it’s a work of no mean personality and charm, and Piers Lane and the Goldner String Quartet prove sensitive advocates. Next, the Australian ensemble’s cellist, Julian Smiles, excels in a shapely account of the even earlier B minor Cello Sonata, a sweetly lyrical affair reconstructed from the incomplete manuscript parts by the Ukrainian composer/musicologist Mikhail Goldstein (1917-1989). When it comes to the 1881 Second String Quartet, of course, we’re in the presence of heaven-sent genius—a wholly mature utterance that never fails to captivate in its melodic fecundity, exquisite craftsmanship and freshness of inspiration. The Goldners do it justice in a reading of considerable discernment, infectious spontaneity and palpable affection, and here as elsewhere the recording (from Potton Hall in Suffolk) is undistractingly natural to match.Classical Ear
BBC Music Magazine
There wasn’t much of a Russian chamber music tradition in Borodin’s time, so he had to go where instinct took him—at least at first. He finds persuasive advocates in the Goldner Quartet, still in its original line-up after 22 years, and Pianist Piers Lane.Written in 1862, the Piano Quintet in C minor is lopsided, opening with a brief movement breathing the twin atmospheres of Russian folksong and orthodox chant, skitting through a scherzo and culminating in a gloriously over-egged finale longer than the first two movements put together. Borodin can’t let go of his triumphant last theme, but the Goldners’ obvious enjoyment of it doesn’t affect their crispness or impeccable tuning.The cello was Borodin’s instrument. His 1860 Sonata survived incomplete and was reconstructed by Mikhail Goldstein—something of a joker, known for his ‘discovery’ of an entirely fictional symphony by an equally fictional composer. His version of the cello Sonata, however, seems entirely legit. Goldner cellist Julian Smiles is in eloquent form; in the finale, Lane’s light touch keeps charm to the fore.This is a glowing performance of the Quartet No 2, written two decades later and audibly more mature. Could the Scherzo sound a touch more playful, the finale more exuberant? Perhaps—but the quartet’s playing is consistently fine.