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

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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





A flower on the cliff’s edge

A few years ago, my eldest daughter came down with chicken pox. I was primary carer at the time, and so needed to come up with creative ways to entertain and distract a bright and precocious child who itched all over and couldn’t play with other kids.

So, we took up stamp collecting. I bought a stamp album, and a magnifying glass, and a some packets of stamps, and we sorted and discussed and classified them. Many were 20 or 30 years old, and inevitably came one of those questions which stumps a parent.cccp stamp

“Dad,” she asked, “what country is CCCP?”

“That,” I explained, “was the Soviet Union. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the USSR. In Russian, that was CCCP.”

Blank look.

I tried again: “There was this thing, the Soviet Union. That is what CCCP means, in Russian.”

“So it just means Russia?”

“No. Not really. A bit. Sort of, yes. Russia was part of it, but the Soviet Union … look, it’s complicated.”

Another blank look, but with mean eyebrows. Dad has failed this particular test.

I know it is wrong of me to feel nostalgia for the Cold War. It was nasty on so many levels, from vile proxy wars in Asia and Africa through to the small matter that between them, the USA and the Soviet Union had enough nuclear weapons to annihilate the human race.

But … look, it’s complicated. For one thing, in those days, we in the west were, warts and all, clearly the better choice. It was the others, the bad dudes, who built weaponised barriers to prevent ordinary men, women and children from fleeing oppression, and put them in prison camps if they dared to try.

The Soviets were good at some things, too. They didn’t put people on the Moon, but apart from that they pretty much won the space race. They were good at sport, especially the Olympics. And, for a totalitarian state, their art was astonishing.

stamp shostYou would expect Soviet art to be chokingly conformist, bureaucratic and bland – and there was plenty of that. But writers, film-makers, poets, singers, dancers, musicians and composers still managed to produce works of breathtaking beauty and spirit.

This is one of those. It is the score, written by Dmitri Shostakovich, for a film called The Gadfly. It was recorded in 1962, by the USSR Cinema Symphony Orchestra. A few months later came the Cuban missile crisis, one of those Cold War moments when the human race stood on the cliff, looking down.2345 Gadfly label

I have chosen two tracks to share. This music, written by a Soviet composer for a Soviet film, performed by a Soviet orchestra, is like a beautiful flower growing on the edge of that cliff.

Shostakovich, The Gadfly, No. 8 ‘Romance’

Shostakovich, The Gadfly, No. 11 ‘Scene’

  • Artist: USSR Cinema Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Emin Khachaturian
  • Composer: Dmitri Shostakovich
  • LP Title: Music for the Film ‘The Gadfly’
  • Tracks: Side 2, Track 1: “No.8, Romance”; Side 2, Track 4: “No. 11, Scene”
  • Format: 12” LP 33⅓ rpm
  • Label: Classics for Pleasure
  • Manufactured in: United Kingdom
  • Year: c. 1978 (recorded 1962)

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

2345 Gadfly sleeve