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The mystery of Borodin's missing Steppes

Back in April I reviewed a concert in the City Hall given by the fine Edinburgh Youth Orchestra on one of its visits to the west.

The programme, conducted by Garry Walker, himself a former cellist in the EYO, was terrific, featuring performances of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto with Jack Liebeck as soloist and a bone-crunching account of Stravinsky's Rite Of Spring.

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But it was the opener that seized my attention and sent my thoughts whizzing back to an earlier time. Walker and the EYO opened the concert with Borodin's In The Steppes Of Central Asia, a slow, warm and distinctively-coloured portrait of a slow journey. It's an absolutely gorgeous piece, and I couldn't think when I last heard it in concert.

As far as I know, it's not that frequently played. Why not?

Well, I suppose the obvious answer is that if you're a programme planner you might be looking for something short, crisp and exciting with which to launch and ignite the evening for your audience, as a starter leading to an exciting concerto with a starry soloist, then on to the main meat course, with a big symphony and all the trimmings.

In The Steppes Of Central Asia is short, but it fits none of the other categories: it's slow, quite gentle and with a wraparound warmth. It's a rather soothing and beautiful piece, with a special flavour from its warm harmonies and colouring that makes it unique to Borodin and his circle. Its relative neglect, because it doesn't fit standard mainstream concert formulae, is a deep shame.

I love In The Steppes, and have loved the music of Borodin since I discovered it as a youngster, through a long-forgotten recording of the Second Symphony that I came across in the family collection.

To this day, I remember gawping at the loudspeakers as this incredible, unimagined music poured out and enveloped me, from the commanding opening of the symphony to its blow-away finale, its high-speed Scherzo and, above everything else, the sheer, alluring, seductive beauty of its ravishing slow movement, which was full of sounds and colours I had never heard, along with an unforgettable melody, at whose performance, with a magical horn solo, I just dissolved into tears. I listened to this new find dozens of times until it was indelibly in my memory, where it remains today.

But I was also puzzled about something. I had been weaned on music, long before embracing delinquency. Like it or loathe it, music was in my blood, later to be suppressed, but later still to erupt into the activity in which I am engaged this very moment: scribbling.

Because of that saturation involvement as a kid, I already had a rough working knowledge of the repertoire (or so I thought at the time).

I knew all the big pieces and sensed that I felt a special affinity with Russian music. I recognised its heart-on-sleeve qualities. I loved what I knew of Tchaikovsky, which was the last three symphonies, the big concertos, Romeo And Juliet and bits and pieces from the ballets.

But what I couldn't understand was that this stunning, new, revelatory find of mine, the music of Borodin, did not sound remotely like Tchaikovsky.

If anything, Borodin, I thought, actually sounds more Russian than the music of Tchaikovsky. Little did I know the how right I was.

Little did I know that I had blindly stumbled into a Russian nationalist musical revolution, packed with five key figures, including Borodin, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Cesar Cui at the core, all under the leadership of Mily Balakirev, with the group known, collectively, as The Mighty Handful, The Kuchka, or The Five, so-named by a music critic. And little did I know, as I charged off to find more music by Borodin, that I wouldn't come up with much.

Why not? Because Borodin was a part-timer: he had a day job, outside music. And so, at one point or another, did all of his nationalist cohorts. And therein lies a fascinating tale for another day.

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