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Alexander Borodin

Alexander Borodin's most famous piece of music, the Notturno, or Nocturne for string orchestra, is really an arrangement of the identically-titled slow movement of Borodin's String Quartet No. 2 in D major of 1881; it is a fresh and wonderfully self-indulgent piece of chamber music which deserves wider familiarity in its original guise. There is arguably much lost in Sargent's adaptation for string orchestra: the Notturno is thought to be a musical reminiscence of Borodin's first meeting with his wife, and there is an appropriate intimacy to the original quartet version that is obscured by even the best of larger ensembles. Similarly, the work's passionate climax is all the more potent and rich when four individuals must struggle to produce a dramatic, full sound; what is electrifying when played by four can become ordinary when played by four dozen. That said, Sargent's arrangement is perhaps the most successful of the many that have appeared over the years, and the nature of the piece is essentially unaltered. Borodin knew the capacities of string instruments well; the Nocturne is clearly and brilliantly designed to work as chamber music. In contrast, the famous Barber Adagio is a far better piece in its string orchestra version than in its original string quartet form, largely because Barber's feel for the string quartet was not as healthy as Borodin's. Compared, for instance, to Rimsky-Korsakov's version for violin and orchestra, Sargent's string orchestra arrangement seems downright authentic.

-- Blair Johnston, All Music Guide