Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Red Army Ensemble

To be published...soon-ish in the Elmhurst College Leader. Unsure what issue.


Album: Red Army Ensemble
Artist(s): Col. Boris Alexandrov, Soviet Army Chorus, Soviet Army Band

Yes, it’s that chorus. Whether you know them as the Red Army Choir, the Soviet Army Chorus, or the Alexandrov Choir, it is indeed the same ensemble that performed with the Leningrad Cowboys in songs like “Gimme all your Lovin” and “Sweet Home Alabama.”

But don’t judge them by their mediocre YouTube videos (or by the Leningrad Cowboys’ hair). This Great Recordings of the Century album captures the chorus at its absolute peak, way back in 1963 when the name “Red Army” actually meant something. Any cliché about Russian army choirs exists due to these gentlemen, and whether it be opera, folk, or pop music, this release illustrates why. Despite the album’s occasionally corny programming, the singing displays a truly militaristic level of discipline and “comradeship.” Or to put it another way—they’re tight as hell.

And what they truly excel at is pure sound. The basses are quite capable of a good subterranean rumble, the tenors are quite secure in their top notes, tuttis are scandalously abused, and very often there are as many as eight parts singing at once. What results is a steely, harmonically rich, masculine sound that is the aural equivalent of a roundhouse to the head.

For example, the Soldier’s Chorus from The Decembrists (Shaporin’s opera based on the first Russian Revolution of 1825) is delightfully bombastic, and displays a dynamic range wide enough to drive a truck through. Similarly, Song of the Volga Boatmen is taken at a brisk, militaristic speed and not only avoids sounding like a dirge, but capably shows off the physical impact of the choir’s tenors. And Kalinka—a song long associated with this ensemble—comes off perfectly, with its rapid accelerations and crescendos executed with breathtaking precision.

The soloists, too, are uniformly excellent, each demonstrating formidable technique rooted in the classic “glottal” Slavic sound. While there are far too many soloists to list, one of the standouts is Evgeny Belaiaev, whose bright, ringing tenor voice surely missed its greater calling in opera. His sustained high notes in the extremely Russian You Are Always Beautiful are fully the equal of most any operatic tenor singing today, and likely superior to most of them. The song itself is upbeat and cheery, demonstrating not only impressive breath control on the part of Belaiaev, but a convincing and necessary panache.

But even aside from objective or technical measurements of excellence, this ensemble is top notch. As should be expected, every Slavic selection is thoroughly idiomatic (balalaikas are used everywhere) and performed with trademark Russian sentiment. Some are very good, many are eminently forgettable, but all are unlikely to ever be better recorded. Among the better selections as yet unmentioned, Black Eyebrows is appropriately melancholic, Snowflakes is sincere and devoted, and The Little Bells is beautifully wistful. Ukrainian Poem, which relays the story of the Ukraine’s liberation from the Nazis, is probably the best cut on the entire album. Bass Aleksei Sergeiev sings with great pathos and the choir’s entrance is appropriately spectacular—the result is a six-minute piece of music rendered as epic drama.

But what is perhaps most interesting about this album is the choice to record various English-language songs. Annie-Laurie, the well loved Scottish ballad, is given perhaps its best choral treatment on record, beating out even the various renditions of Anglo-Saxon groups. Again, Evgeny Belaiaev makes an appearance as the soloist, and his voice floats beautifully above the rich, swelling a capella sound of the chorus. Yes, it’s a Soviet military choir singing with a thick Russian accent on a Scottish song (which has a Scottish accent written into the lyrics!), but somehow, it’s still convincing, and undeniably beautiful.

This is not so say that many of the English cuts aren’t kitschy—indeed, they are. The accents, after all, render the English nearly undecipherable. It’s a long way to Tipperary is rendered “Eet’s uhh lowng vhey too Tihperharry,” and the brass sound like Mariachi music for a moment, but the effect is hilarious. The fact that they can pull this tune off at all is in itself impressive.

So, is it really a Great Recording of the Century? Yes, if you dig the style and the offbeat program. Like other titles in this series, it’s currently selling in the $7-$12 range. Strongly recommended for choral enthusiasts and vodka drinkers.

Grade: A

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Brahms: 21 Hungarian Dances - Abbado/VPO

Destined for 2/26/08 issue of the Elmhurst College Leader. I think.

Someday, I'm going to get my paragraphs on here to indent when I want them to and not just when they choose to be cooperative. Stinking technology.


Album: Brahms: 21 Hungarian Dances

Artist(s): Claudio Abbado, Vienna Philharmonic

Arkivmusic.com’s “on demand” service is a Godsend for serious collectors. Boasting around 5200 titles and adding new ones all the time, the service provides exact reproductions of long out-of-print CDs along with their original artwork and inserts. This Deutsche Grammophon recording has long been a favorite among listeners, and Arkivmusic was wise to license it for their catalogue.

Claudio Abbado’s conducting is relentlessly driven and immaculately executed. The Vienna Philharmonic, then as now, was arguably the best orchestra in the world, and they play perfectly. And of course, Abbado has long been known as a Brahms conductor.

Sounds like a winning combination! And in some of the more vigorous dances, Abbado’s approach does work extremely well. No. 1, for example, has just the right amount of snap, and is somewhat reminiscent of Toscanini’s 1953 recording (though without the latter’s trademark transparency). The famous No. 5 is suitably energetic and makes great use of dynamic contrast, albeit without a great deal of humor or variation in tempo. No. 10 leaps out at you like gangbusters, and it is here that Abbado really hits his stride—the tempo is so fast it’s almost funny. He apparently takes the presto marking very seriously, and the resulting frenzy is downright thrilling.

And yet, this album is only half successful. Recall that this music is largely based on Hungarian folk melodies—but Abbado’s conception lacks any sense of these origins. For comparison, take István Bogár’s reading of dance No. 3 on the Naxos label. For Bogár, the opening theme is reedy, lackadaisical, and utterly charming; for Abbado, this same theme is light, cleanly articulated, and somewhat detached. Where Bogár’s conducting sparkles cheerfully, Abbado’s gleams like stainless steel.

This is not to say that every dance must be infused with a self-aware rustic quaintness. No. 14, for example, was an original composition by Brahms and has a sufficiently urbane feel to fit Abbado’s less sentimental conception nicely. But even in the similarly “inauthentic” dance No. 11, Abbado falls short. The lovely Brahmsian melody is handled by Bogár with dignity, warmth, and an aching sense of melancholy. By comparison, Abbado’s reading is just that: a reading. Effective but unengaging.

And this is the general trend throughout the album. Abbado consistently turns in high-speed and technically excellent performances, with the orchestra heavily balanced in favor of the strings. The result is big-boned, driven, colorless, and often devoid of charm. In some cases, the phrases are so abruptly articulated that any sense of flow is lost, and rests begin to feel like short, grinding halts. In this regard, Abbado is the only conductor I know of who can take one of the world’s greatest orchestras and make Brahms sounds like musical chairs. And Deutsche Grammophon’s harsh 80’s sonics don’t help matters.

In short, Abbado has his good moments, but not enough of them to make the entire cycle a first choice. Unless you’re a fan of Abbado or particularly love technically-excellent orchestras, stick to Bogár’s idiomatic and dirt-cheap cycle with the Budapest Symphony Orchestra. He’s even Hungarian.

Rating: B

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Previn conducts Debussy

To be published 2/12/08 in the Elmhurst College Leader.


Album: Debussy: Images/Prélude à l'apres-midi d'un faune

Artist(s): André Previn, London Symphony Orchestra (LSO)

André Previn is one of those conductors who never achieved the god-like status of many contemporaries, yet consistently managed to turn in excellent and well-balanced performances. Furthermore, his affiliation with the London Symphony Orchestra is one of the better partnerships on record, and their collaborations are well represented on this and other Great Recordings of the Century discs.

Yet, what is likely this release’s greatest strength is its digital sound. Something of a marvel in 1979, this was EMI’s first venture into digital recording, and the album won Gramophone awards that year for both the performance and the sound engineering. If digital sound is an overarching concern, then, this release may be seen as the main competitor for Pierre Boulez’s excellent Debussy recordings on Deutsche Grammophon.

The present performance of Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is easily one of the finest on record. There is a lingering, indulgent, sensuous quality to the entire thing, which is entirely appropriate to the “mood paintings” of Doret’s lusting faun. The LSO’s sound is warm and full, and the strings are surprisingly rich, lending greater credence to the “preponderant influence of Wagner” alleged at the work’s premiere. Yet, Previn maintains a surprising transparency throughout the performance, thereby managing to aptly balance the exotic with the cerebral.

This same, palpable exoticism may be heard in the Images. Previn’s Gigues gets much closer to the English countryside than Boulez ever did (Keel Row actually sounds folksy here). Similarly, Ibéria conveys all the ardor of the Spain Debussy had in mind, but Boulez fares surprisingly well in comparison; where Previn uses a wide palette of colors and textures to portray the exotic, Boulez’s precise, crystalline intensity has an exoticism all its own. And Previn’s Rondes de Printemps is invigorating indeed, played with an eager, youthful impetus that leaves most other versions coughing in the dust. The liner notes claim that most of the cuts were done in single takes, and this energetic Printemps seems likely to be one of them.

The Nocturnes are somewhat less striking. Nuages works very well and is certainly be preferred over Boulez’s too-transparent rendition, but neither version truly captures the feeling of clouds. Fêtes is animated and played with a bludgeoning sort of gusto, but is not terribly cheery—a real shame, given the warm, upbeat approach Previn brought to the Images. But Sirénes is excellent, and the rich sound maintained through the album is again used to great effect. One can almost feel the ocean—waves roll lazily across the strings, swell through the horns, and come to majestic rest, all while the sirens sing with a distant, lovely, alluring femininity. It’s utterly splendid.

So, which to get, Previn or Boulez? While extremely different, both are equally valid approaches. Boulez’s precise, transparent style offers much to be admired, and his more complete survey of Debussy may give him an edge (particularly since his collection includes the magnificent La Mer). But Previn’s full-blooded renditions are certainly gorgeous. So why not get both? It’s great music. And at the moment, copies on Amazon appear to be starting in the $4-5 range. Such a deal.

Rating: A-