Kalinka

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Various
LABELS: Teldec
WORKS: Russian folk songs
PERFORMER: Red Star Red Army Chorus
CATALOGUE NO: 9031-77307-2 DDD

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A recital of familiar Russian folk songs, especially when accompanied by 80 balalaikas and accordions, runs a grave risk of folksy kitsch. But Dmitri Hvorostovsky, still barely 30, has a baritone of rare beauty and sings with such sincerity and passion that the result is glorious in its soulfulness. If the bulk of the recital is lyrical in tone, the true poignancy of these songs is revealed in the two that he sings unaccompanied – the elegiac ‘Noche’nka’ (Night) and the bleak ‘Prash’aj radast" (Farewell, happiness), in which he demonstrates not only heartrending interpretative skills but impeccable phrasing and control. It is only a shame that Philips does not provide the Russian texts.

The Bulgarian bass Anton Diakov attempts much the same programme as appeared on Hvorostovsky’s last recital disc. Rarely performed by non-Slav singers, Tchaikovsky’s and Rachmaninov’s romani deserve to be better known than they are, but though Diakov has an attractively resonant voice, his versions pale beside Hvorostovsky’s interpretations of the same songs. Diakov sounds much more impressive singing the eight folk songs with which the disc ends, especially the splendid, if hackneyed ‘Volga Boat Song’. The Red Star Red Army Chorus, founded in 1977 to entertain the troops but which has happily survived the dissolution of the Soviet forces, also performs the ‘Volga Boat Song’ to powerful effect, thanks largely to the massive sound of so many voices – and basses – singing in unison.

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It is too easy to dismiss the Red Army Chorus as a tacky state ensemble of national-costumed folk-dancing soldiers. In reality—or at least on record — it is a choir of awesome size and the highest musical standards. True, its repertory includes songs like the over-familiar ‘Kalinka’ and an accordion version of ‘The Flight of the Bumblebee’, and its version of ‘Ochi chorniye’ (Dark Eyes) does not compare with Hvorostovsky’s, but as performers of popular, idiomatic Russian song, it is a force to be reckoned with. Claire Wrathall