RECORDS / Four's company, eighty's a crowd: Stephen Johnson and Edward Seckerson on scorings of Shostakovich and symphonies by Borodin

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SHOSTAKOVICH (orchestrated

Barshai): Chamber Symphony,

Op 83a. Symphony for Strings

and Wind, Op 73a

Chamber Orchestra of

Europe / Rudolf Barshai

(DG 435 386-2)

WHEN is a quartet really a symphony? Was Shostakovich wise to endorse public face-lifts of his most private music? Let's be clear, these transcriptions of his Third and Fourth String Quartets were made at his instigation, and with his blessing. And if anyone could take this music out of its natural element and give it an entirely new perspective, his friend Rudolf Barshai could. He knew it from the inside - he had played viola in many of the quartets.

Even so, to hear the yearning Andantino of Op 83a projected so publicly is to shift less uneasily in one's seat. It is an entirely different experience. In a sense, we are no longer eavesdroppers but official observers. Even players as stunningly unanimous as these can never really convey the intimacy, the stark, unsettling immediacy of the originals. Yet Barshai is nothing if not entirely true to the spirit of these pieces. In some instances it could be argued that he has actually broadened their expressive range.

His instrumental choices are spookily idiomatic: the sinister trumpet and military drum, the skeletal xylophone in the finale of Op 83a; or the bravely operatic Passacaglia of Op 73a where solo oboe and bassoon are familiar Shostakovich voices bearing witness. Those same voices can be pungently sardonic where the air is heavy with irony; or where the mask completely drops, as in the increasingly deranged development of the Op 73a first movement.

You could not wish for better performances. It would be an exceptional quartet that matched the precision of these string players in the eerily emaciated staccato at the centre of the Op 73 second movement. ES

LOOKING at the cover of the disc you might conclude that Shostakovich was himself responsible for these orchestrations of his third and fourth string quartets. He wasn't; and while there are passages in which Barshai has succeeded in getting an authentically Shostakovichian sound - long, slowly winding woodwind solos, sparely accompanied, or the warm-blooded opening out of full strings towards the end of the Fourth Quartet's first movement - more often there is a shock rather like discovering a painfully shy friend trying to look comfortable in an aggressive check suit.

Percussion, brass and bass clarinet may add colour to the finale of the Fourth Quartet, but nothing beats the raw, straining intensity of four solo strings. And if an orchestration can be 'wrong', then the horn solo at the start of this movement certainly is. Where is the viola's quiet anguish - the hint of impending catastrophe?

Perhaps a more desperately urgent performance might have got closer, but honestly, why not go to the real thing? SJ

BORODIN: Symphonies 1-3.

Prince Igor: Overture and

Polovtsian Dances. Notturno. In

the Steppes of Central Asia.

Petite Suite

Gothenburg Symphony

Orchestra / Neeme Jarvi

(DG 435 757-2 - two CDs)

FEW musicians can have spent as little time in the Ivory Tower as Alexander Borodin: part composer, part research chemist, part women's rights campaigner - the composing often coming a very poor third. A useful life, certainly, but I cannot help wishing he had taken a little time off from inspecting laboratories in German universities and got the rest of Prince Igor and the Third Symphony down on paper - apparently the music was all there in his head.

Neeme Jarvi and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra give the two surviving movements of the Third - a gentle song and a sharply-flavoured 5/8 scherzo - and they make a very beguiling case for them as they stand; no need for anything more. Prince Igor himself is represented too, by the Overture and, of course, the Polovtsian Dances which would have been equally delightful if the Gothenburg Symphony Chorus had matched the orchestra in brilliance and security.

The centrepieces are, as they should be, the two complete symphonies. Jarvi's account of No 1 is so fresh and crisp that it is easy to forget official pronouncements like 'technically weak' and 'derivative' as the ideas dance or sing onwards. And No 2 gets the kind of performance that sends dust and cobwebs flying and reminds the ear at every stage what an original piece this is - no wonder Liszt admired it. Excellent recordings, too - clear but with enough atmosphere to hint at wide Russian spaces. SJ

THE MUSICAL chemist once claimed that he was a composer 'in search of oblivion'. But oblivion is not an option when you are predestined for a Broadway Tony Award. He really should have stopped writing those gorgeous tunes. All the Kismet favourites are here somewhere: not even Broadway adorned the Notturno (from String Quartet No 2) quite so lavishly as Nicolai Tcherepnin. Glazunov could not resist the delectable Petite Suite for piano. If you have a penchant for fragrant arabesques, you can take your fill here.

As a symphonist, Borodin was at very least an honest broker. True, the workmanship is occasionally under threat of redundancy, but he can suddenly surprise you with his composerly instinct, as when the bracing first subject of the First Symphony turns tearful on us in the coda - a genuinely affecting moment. The star turn is still undoubtedly the Second Symphony, its rhetoric as grand as the medieval Russian heroes who inspired it. Jarvi, ever the wholehearted salesman, sounds reluctant to let go of a single bar. He has all the time in the world for that misty-eyed corker of a tune in the slow movement. And so have I. ES