Soviet Easy Listening

One of the great things about working at a university is that when something has you stumped, there is probably a world authority on stumps just down the corridor.

So it was that, faced with an LP which had a label and sleeve in Russian I emailed a friend and colleague, Cai Wilkinson, who is a senior lecturer in international relations and  knows Russian well.

I have a slightly left-field query. I recently picked up an old Melodiya LP dating from (I would guess) the late 1960s. It is, having played it, what you might call Soviet Easy Listening – male singer (crooner, strong voice, quite good) with a small orchestra and a string section. I was wondering – if I send you a pic of the sleeve would you be able to help me work out who it is?

2197 sleeve compressed

In the spirit of the Freemasonry of scholarship, Cai kindly obliged, and shared the following fascinating story.

It’s a guy called Valery Obodzinsky who was a variety singer in the 1960s and 70s.  His first record came out at the end of the 1960s with a pressing run of 13 million copies [!], but still became a collector’s item. The state earned around 30 million convertible Soviet rubles from it, while the royalties Obodzinsky received was all of 150 rubles.

His popularity didn’t last beyond the 1970s due to rumours that he wasn’t happy with his income and wanted to leave the country, leading to him being dropped from concert programs and tours (he was already not in favour due to apparently not performing in a suitably Soviet manner). Eventually he retired completely in 1987, divorced his wife and then lived with one of his female fans, working as a watchman in a tie factory and suffering from alcoholism.

Melodia LP labelThanks to the efforts of his partner (the aforementioned fan), in 1994 he returned to the stage and was received very positively. Following this successful return, he began touring again, performing concerts in various Russian cities.

A bit of hunting around suggests that the record you’ve got was released in 1971 if the cover art is anything to go by.

It is a rare musician who doesn’t have some drama in their life story. If he or she is Russian, double that.

This track is called “Listopad”, which (I am relying on Cai again here) directly translates as “leaf fall”, but might be better rendered as “the falling leaves”.

  • Artist: Valery Obodzinsky
  • LP Title: Valery Obodzinsky
  • Side 2 Track 1 “Listopad”
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm
  • Label: Melodiya
  • Manufactured in: USSR
  • Year: 1971

Many of the records discussed on Planet Vinyl, and hundreds of others, are for sale on Discogs.

 

 

Dissolve into it

I mused a little while ago about how the Soviet Union, as oppressive and bureaucratic a society as ever shot a dissident, managed to produce great art. Pianist Sviatoslav Richter (no relation to the earthquake guy) personifies the paradox.

6009 coverBorn just before the Bolshevik Revolution, Richter’s father was German by origin. During the Second World War, this made Richter senior an automatic target of Soviet paranoia, and he was arrested as a spy and shot in 1941.

Young Richter, a largely self-taught musical genius, survived the war and in 1949 won the Stalin Prize for his music. He began to tour extensively, first in Communist countries but later – despite the political tensions of the time – in the West as well. He is widely regarded as one of the finest pianists of the 20th century. I am not qualified to judge, but his playing is certainly lovely beyond words.

Richter’s approach to music was that the player was a channel, a medium, from the composer to the listener.

The interpreter is really an executant, carrying out the composer’s intentions to the letter. He doesn’t add anything that isn’t already in the work. If he is talented, he allows us to glimpse the truth of the work that is in itself a thing of genius and that is reflected in him. He shouldn’t dominate the music, but should dissolve into it.

This track comes from a 1965 EP released on Concert Hall, a budget reissue label. It has a lot of wear, but even so the beauty of Richter’s playing of Schubert’ “Allegretto in C Minor” shines through.

People used to weep, hearing Richter play. Even through the crackle and hiss I understand why.

  • Artist: Sviatoslav Richter
  • Composer: Franz Schubert
  • EP Title: Richter Plays Schubert
  • Side 2, Track 1: “Allegretto in C Minor”
  • Format: 7” EP 33⅓ rpm
  • Label: Concert Hall SMS965
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: 1965

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

 

 

 

 

Waking from a nightmare

I first heard this piece of music used on a talking book, a version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It came in at the beginning and end of each chapter. The music is wonderfully suited to Mary’s tale of gothic horror, could almost have been written for it, though there is no direct connection.

“Night on Bald Mountain” was written by a Russian composer, Modest Mussorgsky, in 1867. Bald Mountain is a real place, a hill near Kiev, associated with witchcraft and demonic activity in Ukrainian mythology. There is an aircraft navigation beacon on the top these days, which detracts a little from the spookiness of the place, but the story of Lysa Hora (the Ukrainian name) suits the music.

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Lysa Hora (Bald Mountain), Ukraine. Photo: Daniel Baránek (2009), via Wikimedia Commons

A fortress was built into the hill, and it was used as a prison and execution ground in the twentieth century, and was the site of battles during the Second World War, which makes you think that if there were not ghosts haunting the place when Mussorgsky wrote his piece, there probably are now.

The piece is quite long, just over ten minutes, but it is really worth closing your eyes, turning up the volume and just going with it. It begins with high drama, a black mass, as witches assemble in the stormy dark and summon the Devil, and demons appear and whirl through the dark, in a dance of madness. But then we hear a distant church bell. Dawn has arrived, and slowly the demons disperse, and the mood shifts, lightens, and the piece ends with tranquility, new hope.bern front cover

For me, “Night on Bald Mountain” captures the feeling of waking from a horrible nightmare, and lying safe in bed as the room gets brighter, just glad to be awake, glad that it is day.

This performance is by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, recorded in 1965.

 

  • Artist: New York Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Leonard Bernstein
  • LP Title: Polovetsian Dances And Other Russian Favorites
  • Track: Side 2, Track 1 “Night on Bald Mountain”
  • Format: 12” 33⅓ rpm
  • Label: CBS M 31844
  • Manufactured in: United States
  • Year: 1973 (original release 1965)