Petite Suite,
Polovstian Dances and Prince Igor Suite,
Nocturne for Violin and Orchestra,
In The Steppes Of Central Asia

Margaret Field Soprano
Ian Boughton Tenor
Stephanie Chase Violin
BBC Symphony Chorus
Philharmonia Orchestra
Geoffrey Simon

Cala Signum SIGCD 2094
Full Price

The Review

In the early 1990s the Australian conductor Geoffrey Simon, resident in London, was bold enough to start his own label, Cala, and book the established London orchestras to make a series of recordings, mainly of well known repertoire. At the time he came in for a lot of press flack; partly for his temerity in doing it all himself (vanity publishing, they muttered), partly for ignoring the artists’ contract system of the big labels like EMI and Philips.

Thirty years on everything has changed. Many ensembles and artists have their own labels. The big companies have merged or gone out of business, and contracts are not the badge of respectability and lifelong loyalty they once were. There is now nothing to apologise for and Geoffrey Simon can feel himself thoroughly vindicated. The Cala catalogue is being re-released in partnership with the strong Signum label and the recordings have stood the test of time pretty well. Putting them out at full price is perhaps a little bold in tough times, though. Medium price would be fairer.

While not a star name, Simon is a very capable conductor, in his youth a student of Rudolf Kempe and Karajan. His interpretations are sensible, reliable, well thought through and engaging, if not offering any great revelations. Orchestras play well for him and the virtuosity of the Philharmonia on this issue is precise and sparkling (though a rich Russian sound does elude the BBC Symphony Chorus).

He had the enormous sense to make sure that, along with standard repertoire, the discs contain less usual items or works in unfamiliar versions. So here the very well known Polovstian Dances from Prince Igor are supplemented by a Suite from the opera including the desolate song of the Polovstian maidens as they are pursued by Russian forces. Borodin’s most famous tune, the slow movement of his Second String Quartet, is here given its first recording in the guise of a solo Nocturne with orchestra, a version by Rimsky-Korsakov who spent an inordinate amount of time polishing Borodin’s music; a process of affectionate friendship but perhaps tinged with the patronising thought that the great professor of chemistry and women’s rights activist couldn’t possibly be trusted. It’s true that Borodin was methodologically more chaotic in his music studio than his lab but sometimes his friend moved a little too far towards the saccharine and missed the taut invention. Nonetheless, Stephanie Chase makes the case for this version convincingly.

The Petite Suite is, at 23 minutes, not that petite. It is also one of Borodin’s most personal works, in its original piano form subtitled ‘a little love poem for a young girl’, all elegantly set out in French. Glazunov’s orchestration is rather heavy-handed and misses the intended dreaminess. It’s a shame that Ravel or Prokofiev didn’t think of taking on the task a few decades later. The second piece on the disc to be recorded for the first time is Leopold Stokovski’s arrangement of the Requiem. If you’re expecting Verdi here, forget it. Borodin’s version only lasts five minutes and is decidedly tongue in cheek; his contribution to a game with Rimsky-Korsakov, Cui and Liadov playing around with Chopsticks, set with great solemnity and so all the funnier. This is one of those records that may not look world shaking on paper but will give much lasting pleasure.