Not only was Alexander Porfiryevich Borodin (12.11.1833 – 27.02.1887) a Russian Romantic composer of Georgian-Russian origin, but also a renown chemist and a doctor. He was a member of ‘The Five’, a group dedicated to producing a uniquely Russian kind of classical music rather than imitating west European music. Borodin displays a strong lyric vein and is especially noted for his handling of heroic subjects. He had an unusually fine rhythmic sense and excelled in the use of orchestral colour and in the evocation of distant places.
He is best known for his Symphony No. 2 in B minor, In the Steppes of Central Asia, the opera, Prince Igor (especially the Overture and the Polovtsian Dances, and his String Quartet No. 2 in D major, which, with its ever-popular third movement, is one of the finest string quartets of the Romantic period.
Borodin composed his String Quartet No.2 in D Major during the summer of 1881, in what was for him a relatively short period of time. Borodin dedicated the quartet to his wife Ekaterina, and it was written as an evocation of when they met and fell in love in Heidelberg some twenty years previously. It is suggested that Borodin represented himself in this quartet with the cello (he was an amateur player), while Ekaterina is portrayed by the first violin.
It is written in four movements, beginning with an amiable Allegro moderato in which the cello sings out the main theme, followed by the first violin. The first violin then introduces an equally lyrical second theme. The end of the movement cleverly integrates both of the main themes in a magical and soft ending. In the second movement, Scherzo Allegro, the violins state the main theme which is a rapid and repeated series notes, played slightly higher in pitch each time they are repeated. Against this, the viola plays a sustained counter melody. The third movement, Notturno, is probably the most famous piece of music that Borodin ever composed. It has as its opening theme one of the most beautiful and well-known of all quartet melodies, used on Broadway and in Hollywood. Most people will have heard this music but few know from where it originally came! In the finale, Borodin plays with two separate tempi. The main theme to the finale is stated in the opening Andante. Then comes a faster section, Vivace, in which the lower voices bring forth both parts of the first theme. Later, the first violin sings out a lyrical second theme. Borodin cleverly builds tension throughout this long movement and brings it to a triumphant and celebratory close.
We have opted for a superb performance of this wonderful music by the Borodin Quartet; Yaroslav Alexandrov, Rostislav Dubinsky (violins), Dimitri Shebalin (viola) and Valentin Berlinsky (cello). This performance can be found on a 2-CD bargain set ‘The Essential Borodin’ that also contains good performances of the other well-known works mentioned above.