Mention German music, or English, or French and most people will likely find similar sounds springing to mind. Each country’s ‘style’ developed in a fairly linear fashion with a little cross-pollination from one to the other. But think of Russian music and where does the mind settle? Mussorgsky? Tchaikovsky? Stravinsky? Rachmaninov? Shostakovich? Schnittke? Has any other musical nation gone down so many rich and rare musical rabbit holes in such a short time?

Why was that? Political volatility was part of the reason. Plus a certain lack of concern (at least in the 19th century) for formal rules and boundaries – no one embraced Beethoven and Berlioz quite like the Russians. But Russian music also has much in common with itself (beyond a misguided Western perception of gloom). The music of Tchaikovsky was at least as influential as that of Wagner for composers as diverse as Saint-Saëns, Bax or Gershwin. In some cases it even acted as a welcome alternative to what was considered German stodginess.

Australian orchestras are programming oodles of Russian music this year, but the Sydney Symphony Orchestra has chosen to binge. I asked Chief Conductor David Robertson to join me on a mini tour of Russian musical...

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