BORODIN: Piano Quintet / String Quintet
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Sonata in B Minor forCello and Piano
Quintet in F Minor forTwo Violins, Viola and Two Cellos
Quintet in C Minor forTwo Violins, Viola, Cello and Piano
Alexander Borodin'stwo string quartets, completed in 1879 and 1881, are milestones in Russianchamber music. Their importance lies as much in their influence on othercomposers as in their own intrinsic excellence. Although they appear to beBorodin's only major contribution to chamber music, they did not come intobeing without antecedents. Surprising as it may seem, chamber music accountsfor a significant portion of his output, and the string quartets are latecompositions in a body of work that comprises a concerto for flute and piano(1847, lost), four string trios (1847, lost; 1852-56, unfinished; 1855;1850-60), a quartet for flute, oboe, viola and cello (1852-56), a stringquintet (1853-54), a sonata for cello and piano (1860), a string sextet(1860-61, two movements lost), a piano trio (1860-61), a piano quintet (1862),a scherzo for string quartet (1882), and a Spanish Serenade for string quartet(1886).
In a letter dated 6November 1884, Borodin replied to the countess Louise de Mercy-Argenteau, whohad requested a list of his compositions, that his early attempts writtenbefore his meeting Balakirev in the late autumn of 1862 were but "pecheesde jeunesse," not worthy of consideration. Happily composers are notalways their own best critics, and the maxim is borne out especially byBorodin's assessment of his piano quintet.
While in his teensBorodin taught himself to play the cello, and thereafter he played in a numberof ensembles, gaining wide experience in chamber music and an intimateacquaintance with the Western European repertoire, in general his musical trainingwas anything but systematic, and it is significant that he considered the studyof chamber music an important part of his largely autodidactic musicaleducation.
During his studentyears at the Academy of Physicians in St. Petersburg, Borodin especiallyenjoyed the chamber music gatherings at the home of an amateur cellist, IvanCavrushkevich, where works of Boccherini, Spohr, Onslow and Gebel were oftenplayed. Written in 1853-54 at Gavrushkevich's suggestion, Borodin's stringquintet is one of the earliest Russian chamber works of the nationalistpersuasion. Its folklike propensities may well be attributable to the influenceof Franz Xavier Gebel (1787-1843), a German-born Muscovite who incorporatedRussian folksong quotations into his rather lightweight pieces.
More significantly, inthe string quintet Borodin appears as a true successor to Glinka, whose stringquartet (1824) is the most likely source of the whirling triplets that appearin Brodin's first variation in the second movement. That movement, like thecorresponding section of Glinka's quartet, has a folk-based character. Thechoice of a minuet as the third movement is common to both works, but hereBorodin was probably emulating Alexander Alyabiev's G Major string quartet
(1825), with which there are decided similarities of melody and instrumentaldisposition. The quintet is interesting not only for the provenance of itsideas but even more so as a prototype of Borodin's later works. The sixpizzicato bars that end the first movement reappear at the end of the scherzoin the second string quartet. The principal theme of the finale, based on thedescending minor scale, establishes a pattern that occurs again in the openingmovement of the piano quintet and repeatedly throughout Prince Igor. In thefinale a dactylic rhythmic figure that Borodin adapted from Russia folk sourcesand made characteristically his own becomes increasingly prevalent in thescores of many other Russian nationalist composers in the second half of thenineteenth century.
Nevertheless the mostapparent influence in the string quintet is Mendelssohn's. In the firstmovement the lyrical element is strong, and a Mendelssohnian mercurialitypervades both the dramatic, descending first subject and the ascending secondtheme. One cannot fail to be impressed by the fluent assuredness of theeuphonious movement, in which the only weaknesses are the seams at theexposition and the development. Despite the presence of the two cellos, whichordinarily would weigh the formation toward darker colours, the tone of thequintet remains bright and clear. Borodin initially had resisted the idea ofcomposing a quintet, doubting his ability to handle two solo parts, i.e. firstviolin and first cello, and to create a part for the cello that would be bothbeautiful and idiomatic. The second movement proves those reservationsunfounded. This Russian romance with two variations achieves a fine balance ofalternating solo parts in the initial statement of the theme and skillfullycombines the two in counterpoint in the second variation. The third movement isa rapid, rather elfin minuet with a charming, Landler-like trio. With abustling rhythmic underpinning the finale again recalls Mendelssohn. Insonata-rondo form, it begins with a descending main theme, followed by asubsidiary idea. The second subject begins with an ascending flourish, and arepeat of the first theme closes the exposition and begins the development.
After the two subjects are alternately developed, a slow episode in which the firstcello is prominent precedes the restatement of the themes, much as theyappeared in the exposition. A brief coda ends the quintet.
There is no evidencethat the string quintet, though written at Gavrushkevich's suggestion, was everplayed at one of his gatherings, and there is the possibility that Borodincontinued to work on it later, between 1855 and 1860. No contemporary documentsexist to determine its exact evolution. In any case the quintet was leftincomplete. Sketches indicate that the slow movement was to have had a thirdvariation, and if Borodin composed a coda to the finale, it was lost. Thepresent coda was reconstructed by the Soviet musicologist Evlakhov when thequintet was first published in Leningrad in 1960.
Borodin had arrangedmany pieces for the cello, and he brought considerable knowledge of hisinstrument to his sonata. It probably dates the early summer of 1860, when hewas engaged in chemical research in Heidelberg and devoted his leisure hours tochamber music. Unlike the string quintet, which adheres to the tonic F Minorwith only a few excursions into the relative major and tonic major, the cellosonata (along with the contemporary, unfinished piano trio) displays a freejuxtaposition of keys that marks the work of Borodin's Heidelberg years andmust have horrified musical purists.
A violinist in anadjoining flat often played Bach's Unaccompanied Sonata No. 1 in GMinor, BWV 1001, and Borodin decided to compose a sonata based on a short themefrom the fugue. Transposed to the key of B Minor, it opens the sonata. Thesecond subject, though obviously derived from the initial theme, assumes aRussian quality that already is typical of the composer. Twice later in thismovement - at the end of the development and again in the recapitulation - thelistener will hear a further derivation of the second subject that isapparently the progenitor of the second subject of the second symphony'sopening movement. Other material in the sonata shows a relationship to PrinceIgor. The atmosphere of the slow movement is completely romantic, and thoughBorodin chose to entitle it "Pastorale", it seems that"R?â?¬verie" would have been more appropriate. A more animated secondsection has a decidedly Russian quality; it is followed by an unaccompaniedcadenza before the return of the poetic opening theme. T