Alexander Borodin: In the Steppes of Central Asia

When Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her Silver Jubilee, Britain celebrated with new coins, commemorative mugs and nostalgic street parties.

When Alexander II of Russia held his Silver Jubilee, in 1880, among other things he commissioned Borodin to compose a symphonic poem. It was intended to be the soundtrack to a tableau vivant – a slightly curious and now largely forgotten art form in which actors pose, motionless, in a set, often lit to resemble a painting.

Quite how they would have coped standing motionless for the full seven or eight minutes of Borodin’s music, we’ll never know. The ‘production’ was called off after an attempted assassination. Rimksy-Korsakov rescued it, though, for the 1880 season with his Russian Opera Orchestra and it has since become a concert favourite. It’s not hard to see why. The music, as well as being crammed full of great tunes, is beautifully comprehensible: the listener can easily hear the Russian troops and Central Asians travelling across the steppe. Both have their own melodies, which briefly meet, working perfectly over each other, before the Asian music wafts off into the distance and the Russian theme is left alone.

Recommended Recording

Kirov Orchestra; Valery Gergiev (conductor). Philips: 4708402.