Sergey Eduardovich Bortkiewicz (1877-1952) is enjoying something of a discovery (and in a sense a rediscovery) of his music for over several years. The obscurity had much to do with the circumstances he was under, not really on the quality of his music, which is generally highly inventive and with a strong melodic profile & fervor. The two World Wars and the Russian Revolution effectively destroyed his chances of real success as a composer and as a musician. After studying music at the St. Petersburg Conservatory with Karl van Arek then with Lyadov (he also studied law which he later abandoned), he decided to continue his musical studies in Germany, and enrolled at the Leipzig Conservatory under the tutelages of Jadassohn & Reisenauer (of composition and piano respectively). His love for Berlin was never in doubt & lived there happily with his wife. But the German officials looked at him with suspicion for he was "Russian" and consequently placed him and his wife under house arrest before deporting them back to Russia.
But even back home he was treated with disdain in Russia because he was looked upon as a wealthy bourgeois (he came from a wealthy family). And when he returned to his estate in Kharkiv (or Kharkov) in the Ukraine after the First World War, his hopes for a better life vanished: the Soviets destroyed his family estate & the composer and his wife settled in Constantinople (Turkey). But he missed the cultures of Europe & decided to move with his wife to Vienna. After living in Paris for six months, they settled in Berlin for close to five years. The Nazi forces, however, continued to show disdain for anything and anyone Russian & expelled them from Germany. The Bortkiewicz remained in Vienna for the rest of their lives, amidst the incredible hardships during the Second World War. But recognition of his music finally came thereafter and during the celebration of his 75th birthday, concerts were held in his honor. His friends, particularly Hugo van Dalen, a notable Dutch pianist, had a great deal to do with keeping his music, and the essence of the composer, from total oblivion. Some of his works deemed lost are now found, even recently. But the damage was done, and the lesson we shall draw from this is how the weaknesses, the evil, & the ill-fortunes of mankind can damage and ultimately destroy the virtues of creativity & the essences of the blossoming of life itself.
But Bortkiewicz' music did blossom, as with Vainberg's during and after similar circumstances which confronted and affected him. And it's highly rewarding to hear the seriousness, the invention, the profundity of his music particularly during the most harshest of circumstances. And if you're familiar with his piano music especially in the Hyperion CD series (along with his rather flamboyant Piano Concerto), you will derive a good deal of pleasure from the symphonies, which are well constructed & rather melodic. The First, entitled "From my Homeland" of 1934 is rather striking, though, truth to tell, not as strong & idiomatic as the First Symphonies of, say Tchaikovsky, Balakirev, Glazunov, Kalinnikov, Lyatoshynsky, and Shostakovich(or of Bortkiewicz' Lamentation & Consolations for that matter). But the piece stands up quite well, with a Hollywoodish, assertive opening that develops into an atmosphere lyrical and yearning in character underpinned by some dramatic & heroic impulses (in a manner of Chopin more or less). The lyrical passages has warmth and substance even if lacking in depth that makes Rachmaninov's and Myaskovsky's scores masterpieces in their own rights. The scherzo, a bit too much in a manner of Rimsky-Korsakov & Tchaikovsky, is effectively dancelike and to my mind witty (Bortkiewicz' excellent orchestration comes huge especially here). But turn to the slow movement and the profundity is at its upmost-sorrowful and lamenting. And while I was more touched by the slow movement of the Second Symphony, this Adagio is not cheap, nor is the finale, which has sparkle, but also a sweeping melody articulated by the strings at 1'07"-ff that has grace as well as dignity. The opening motif of the first movement returns and rather exhilarating coda has reminiscences of both Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" & his Solemn Overture on the Danish Anthem, but in the composer's own style.
The Second Symphony of 1936/1937 is to me marginally a more substantial composition. The mood throughout is bleak and melancholic, rather sentimental in veins somewhat similar to Tchaikovsky. The passages played by the brass has a funereal quality about it. Even the scherzo is heroic, not as jolly as the scherzo of the First Symphony, but fierced and determined (as if saying I shall continue to move on). But turn to the Andante sostenuto movement and the anguish is even more profound. Listen to the innocent, remotely hopeful melody announce by the clarinet at 2'45" only for the strings to pick up that melody with a greater poignancy of sorrow and lamentation. Rather moving stuff, which compelled me to expect the finale to carry on within that same level. But instead the finale, notwithstanding some of that Tchaikovskian pomposity & poetic moments, comes across as lacking that wroughtfulness that would have enhance the overall appeal of the work.
Nevertheless, Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Scottish Symphony come up huge in these surveys, with their approach highly vivid and measured where required. Their sympathetic readings are never in doubt & there's warmth underlying their playing. To no surprise, the Hyperion recording is of its usual warm & atmospheric incandescence and the booklet essay continues to be well within the record company's high standards of presentation (as does the cover painting of Makovsky). Malcolm Henbury-Ballan, the author of the booklet essay states "Here at last, in his homeland, Bortkiewicz has been re-established and honored as a composer of great beauty, passion, and melody. The exile has finally returned home." A rather beautiful sentiment indeed!