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

No comments: