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Featuring the best reviews from our loyal ClassicsOnline members.
 (9 June – 22 June)

RUSSIA Balalaika Ensemble Wolga: Songs of the Taiga
(ARC: EUCD2330)

Reviewer: jcclassics
Date Reviewed: 06/05/11
RUSSIA Balalaika Ensemble Wolga: Songs of the Taiga

Wonderful Timeless Russian Tunes

Few tunes are more uplifting, more cheerful than traditional Russian folk songs. If you have any doubt just listen to the new compilation released by ARC Music in the UK entitled “Old Mother Russia, Songs of the Taiga”. This is music that is very much alive and that makes you feel that way too. Even melancholy sounds joyful here as in the music interpreted by the Balalaika Ensemble Wolga, the famed group that contributed its performance to the soundtrack of one of the Indiana Jones series of films.

A fine mix of 20 instrumentals and sung pieces come to renew the time-honoured tradition of Russian folk songs, perfectly bound together by the typical, crystal clear ringing sound of the omnipresent balalaika, the three-string triangular shaped Russian guitar.

One you start playing the album you’ll find it difficult to press the stop button before the 20 songs are over. The melodies are superb and are borrowed from Russia, Ukraine, Georgia as well as from some other neighbouring Caucasian regions.

From the fast-paced “My Moscow” to the moving “Two Guitars” and then to “Where Are You” and “The Coachman”, the music takes the listener to a wonderful, light-spirited journey to the best that folk music has to offer. Many of the songs are arranged with the typical Russian pattern that makes the piece start with a slow, steady tempo and that then accelerates towards the end in a rousing, climaxing atmosphere.

In addition to the characteristic sound of the balalaika, the music is “flavoured” with the unique appeal of an all-men choir and some enchanting melodies. The “Manchurian Waltz”, for instance, is one example of the exquisite, lyrical melodies of Russian folklore. You will feel like singing along with the Ensemble Wolga throughout the entire album, even if you do not speak a word of Russian, and even if there are no lyrics at all, like with the instrumental-only parts!

As for the pieces written with a waltz-like 3/4 meter, like the “Manchurian Waltz”, “The Leaf of the Birch Tree” and the “Russian Polka”, if they don’t make you feel getting up and dancing (while singing at the same time…) then nothing will. Another trait of that folklore is the romanticism of the tunes. This is the East after all, the perfect ground for romantic music.

As pleasing as the album may be musically speaking, the mix could have been done a bit better. There is too much reverberation. With more restraint the producers would have obtained a better result. To me it is like a tasty dish to which too much salt was added. This is not what I call a clean sound, at least not by today’s standards. However, this remains a minor complaint and the disc shines from track 1 to track 20.

TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 2 / Capriccio Italien
(Chandos: CHAN8460)

Reviewer: EC119230
Date Reviewed: 05/31/11
TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 2 / Capriccio Italien

Little Russian Symphony by Tchaikovsky

This excellent recording of Tchaikovsky's Second Symphony was my first download of music from the ClassicsOnline site. The sound quality is excellent and the conductor Mariss Jansons leads the Oslo Philharmonic with obvious gusto! My download plays perfectly on my Bose system at home and on the CD player of my wife's new car!

Although this Symphony is perhaps not as well known as the composer's other major symphonic works, it is characterized by many beautiful melodic folk themes and all four movements show gorgeous orchestration.

The accompanying recording of Capriccio Italien is also very enjoyable. It is not only a very familiar piece but in this recording, it is beautifully played.

I thoroughly recommend this album to all ClassicsOnline users and especially to those who enjoy the many other masterpieces of this great Russian composer.

IBRAHIM, Abdullah / DYANI, Johnny: Echoes from Africa
(Enja: ENJ-3047)

Reviewer: MD97437
Date Reviewed: 05/30/11
IBRAHIM, Abdullah / DYANI, Johnny: Echoes from Africa

Iconic South African jazz duo documented

Recorded in Ludwigsburg in 1979, this album represents a meeting of two iconic South African jazz musicians, who had to make careers for themselves outside South Africa due to the political circumstances prevailing in the country at the time.

Comprising three original compositions by the pianist Abdullah Ibrahim and a reharmonised version of the classic Mackay Davashe tune "Lakutshon'ilanga," the music sounds very different from American jazz.

Harmonically simple, the opening track "Namhanje (Today)" opens with Dyani singing. It is based on a hypnotic repeated chordal pattern over which the musicians sing lyrics in vernacular South African language. There follows a lengthy improvisation by Ibrahim over this repeated pattern, drawing on his highly developed rhythmic sense and incorporating some moments of free improvisation. Throughout the lengthy piece, Dyani plays the support role with a very warm sound from the double bass.

Davashe's ballad "Lakutshon'ilanga" is pensive and delicate by contrast with the previous excursion. The reharmonised treatment gives the piece a Charlie Haden-esque flavour.

"Saud," which Ibrahim dedicates to Coltrane's long-time associate McCoy Tyner, is an introspective minor blues in which Ibrahim suggests Middle Eastern melodies at times.

"Zikr" concludes the album with a gospel flavour and features Dyani's bow work. The  devotional character of the piece has a pervasive quality of longing about it, and the direct emotional appeal of the composition is very moving.

Despite some occasional rough edges, there are moments of great emotional depth in the music as a whole, and it stands as an important record of the work of the late Johnny Dyani, who worked with many significant improvising musicians until his death in 1986 at the age of 42.

Dyani and Ibrahim (along with Chris McGregor and the Blue Notes) remain significant not only for their musicianship, but also in bringing an African jazz sensibility to Europe and the world in general.

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