When the Red Army
Ensemble visited Britain in 1956 Stalin had been dead just three
years, the Suez crisis was about to break and glasnost was
nothing but a pipedream. Yet their sell-out concerts marked
something of a thaw in frosty post-war relations, with the 200-strong
ensemble making a return visit in 1963. Only the political fall-out
following the ‘Prague Spring’ prevented a further tour in 1968.
EMI were shrewd
enough to tempt the Russians into the recording studio on their
first visit. Such was the success of these recordings – not
least in terms of profits – that EMI’s Walter Legge booked them
for another session during their 1963 tour, when the remaining
items were captured on tape. The only track not previously released
is the last, God Save the Queen.
In the deeply cynical
post-Communist era it may be hard to understand why this band
appealed to British audiences but this newly remastered collection
may go some way towards answering that question. First there
is the unique, vibrant sound and, second, the choice of repertoire;
Russian ‘lollipops’ with some English songs thrown in as ice-breakers.
Couple that with mostly vivid sound and you have 77 minutes
of pure, undiluted nostalgia.
Song of Youth gets the disc off to a hair-raising start.
There is an amazing ebullience, a real sense of collective enjoyment,
that permeates this collection. The soloists also sing with
great ardour and feeling, notably I. Didenko in A birch tree
in a field did stand and several of the more memorable songs
on this disc.
Soldiers and soldiering
are never forgotten, though. In Far Away a frontier guard
dreams of his beloved; there is a naïve charm to the music,
with its echoes of Tchaikovsky, and even though the overt sentimentality
might induce a snigger or two in 2007 it is still a strangely
moving piece. That lone tenor rising from the chorus at the
close will surely soften the hardest of hearts.
You are always
beautiful is rather more extrovert, the balalaikas contributing
to the song’s distinctively Russian flavour. The tenor Evgeny
Balaiaev sings well, especially in the quieter moments. He may
lack Didenko’s fuller, more burnished tone but he does manage
a thrilling top note at the end. He is also wonderfully heroic
the bass Aleksei Sergeiev, takes us on an atmospheric
troika ride On Peter’s Street. Such is the warmth and
vitality of the singing that one can hardly fail to respond
to the music’s simple charms, just as those audiences probably
did 50 years ago. And the sound of the Ukranian zither or bandura
also brings a warming glow to the soldier’s memories of
his beloved in Bandura. V. Federov’s stygian bass is
a marvel here, even though he only has a minor role to play.
Given this ensemble’s
provenance it would be surprising if there weren’t at least
one Communist-era crowd pleaser, and The Soldiers’
Chorus is it. Taken from Shaporin’s opera The Decembrists
it celebrates the early revolutionaries who rose up against
the Tsar in 1825. Eminently forgettable, but at least it’s the
only tub-thumper on the disc.
The next three items
were recorded in 1963, and it shows in terms of general presence
and refinement. Balaiaev makes a welcome return in Beautiful
Moonlit Night, urging his loved one to come across the frozen
fields and warm herself against him. It is not particularly
memorable, though the tenor pulls off some sustained high notes.
In Kamarinskaya the chorus and singers take a rest and
the balalaika and orchestra take over for a rattling good instrumental
break. But the real change comes with Annie Laurie, the
first of the English songs on this disc. Balaiaev literally
rises to the occasion, singing above a murmured chorus. It must
have been a real showstopper all those years ago; there probably
wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
With Black Eyebrows
we are back to the older acoustic; the sound seems much
more boxy than before, although the soundstage improves marginally
in Ukrainian Song. Aleksei Sergeiev’s bass – and the
overripe brass – are well caught, though it has to be said the
orchestra and chorus sound a little fierce in the tuttis. The
bass Artur Eizen sings Oh no, John! in deliciously accented
English. Fortunately the somewhat restricted sound can’t disguise
the colour and humour in his voice.
of the way through the disc and there is a sneaking suspicion
that we may have heard all the best bits before the interval,
so to speak. Song of the Plains and Snowflakes
are not very memorable. Even Didenko – his ringing high notes
notwithstanding – lacks that old magic. At least the rousing
Song of the Volga Boatmen injects some much-needed brio
into the programme, as do the two tenors in the rather jolly
Nut-brown Maiden. The boy gets his girl there, but in
The Little Bells he can only dream of her. This is the
kind of sentimental music this ensemble does so well, the tenor
singing ardently above a thrilling but muted chorus. Nikolay
Abramov’s high tenor is just spine tingling.
The last part of
the disc begins with the ‘protest song’ If I had a hammer.
The baritone begins it in Russian but ends it in English. The
odd thing is they make it sound like a spiritual; it may sound
a tad awkward but full marks for giving it a go. It feels like
we’re moving into encore time with the Great War tune It’s
a long way to Tipperary – which gets a marvellous outing,
again in delightfully accented English – and their rendition
of God Save the Queen, which sounds splendid, if a little
Hats off to EMI
for issuing this most entertaining collection. Even if this
music isn’t your usual fare there are bound to be some tracks
that appeal. Certainly the first half of the programme seems
to have the best bits and all in pretty good (stereo) sound,
but the evening does start to drag a little after that. No texts
or translations included; still, there are brief synopses on
each track so you can get the gist of what’s going on.
And Rob Barnett
This is a fascinating
disc recreating an era when the Red Army musical ensembles had
a real glamour and exoticism in the West. Barriers were falling
– sometimes only temporarily – and Soviet artists including
Oistrakh, Mravinsky and Kondrashin were beginning to be heard
‘in the flesh’ by Western audiences.
This two hundred strong male voice choir perform at breathtaking
collision crash speed Dunayevsky's Song of Youth. The
solo tenor (I. Didenko) is set against the quiet then loud singing
of the choir amid a spangle of balalaika in the traditional
A birch tree in a field did stand; a melody used
by Balakirev and Tchaikovsky. In Georgi Nosov's Far Away
the solo tenor is the ringingly Puccinian Evgeny Belaiev.
The Nosov is more of a sentimental troubadour serenade with
woodwind and balalaika in discreet supporting roles. Boris Mokrousov's
You are always beautiful steps out at a brisk tempo testing
the breath control of soloist Belaiev.
pretty much a trademark song for the Red Army Ensemble with
its glitter and steady accelerando here added to by bird songs.
The traditional Along Peter's Street has a fine bass
in Aleksei Sergeiev and nicely conveys that feeling of a sedate
troika ride. Bandura is Ukrainian in origin and is sung
in that language with the excellent I. Savchuk as tenor and
V. Fedorov as bass.
Shaporin is one
of my special interests so it is good to hear the Soldier's
Chorus from the opera The Decembrists – see Preiser
recording. This is typical Red Army fare: an oompah underpinning
and a sturdy march with a soldierly swing rising from whisper
to blaze. There’s an almost Coatesian sense of elation too set
off by a filigree of piccolo and flute bird against a light
haze of balalaika. If there’s a touch of Verdi's Dies Irae
it’s none the worse for that.
night again features Belaiev amid a tremolo of balalaikas
- romantic winter nights indeed. Sentimentality is part and
parcel of this collection as you can also hear a capella
in the hushed Little Bells. That romanticism is accentuated
by the pervasive presence of the balalaika on many of the tracks.
Kamarinskaya is the first and only purely instrumental
track - mostly for the balalaikas but with brass interjections.
It rises from gentle musing to an exuberant stomp.
the challenge of English for Annie Laurie and achieves
a nice effect even if he seems fractured and disengaged from
the meaning of the words. The very famous Arthur Eisen makes
a much better job of Ah No John. Eisen proves a real
asset with his totally secure bass and his hushed and tense
ability to chart a crescendo from whisper to loud climax and
then decrescendo. Other English language tracks include Pete
Seeger’s If I Had A Hammer in which the voice of bass
Aleksei Sergeiev rings out in Paul Robeson fashion. No doubt
the politics of both Seeger and Robeson helped here. There is
surely some irony and a little ingratiation in the inclusion
of God Save The Queen – complete with balalaikas – and
It’s a long way to Tipperary, the latter ringingly sung
with a crash and a tramp.
Ukrainian Black Eyebrows is essayed by I. Savchuk recorded
more distantly than in the other tracks. It’s passionate but
not really very interesting. We stay in the Ukraine for the
much more interesting Ukrainian Poem by A.V. Alexandrov.
There's a longish enchanting orchestral prelude before the bass
Sergeiev soulfully enters with some dramatic singing. This is
the longest track here and has about it the air of Egmont
Lev Knipper wrote
plenty of symphonies very few of which have been recorded - only
No. 4? His ‘hit’ is Song of the Plains. This evokes steppe
cavalry charging from the distance and then right up to the listener
and then you streaming on either side. Allowing for the coconut
shells for horse hooves and the recurrence of a bird whistle this
is all quite effective as you are swept up into the saddle and
then gently set down as the riders sweep into the distance.
A novelty GROC heavy with 1950s and 1960s nostalgia. Testimony
to the lively imaginative acumen of the EMI Classics team.