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.