Due to visa restrictions the originally programmed Moscow Balalaika Ensemble were replaced by soloists from The Ossipov National Academic Folk Instruments Orchestra of Russia. According to MrsRiverdale, who once dated a balalaika player, this may well have been an improvement as The Ossipov are internationally renowned as being the best in the business, so quantity was replaced with quality.
As they entered for the first half my heart sank a little, there were none of the flamboyant cod-Cossack outfits I had expected from past brushes with bands from the ex-USSR, instead a formal suited quintet took the stage, including a lad on the bayan (piano accordion) who looked to be too young to shave, they settled then broke into a terrific arrangement of The Moon Shines. Virtuosic playing indeed.
They were joined by the bass baritone, Vassily Savenko for a couple of songs. From the way he stared deep into MrsRiverdale's eyes as he delivered what sounded to me like yearning love songs, and from the way she stared back, enraptured, I was beginning to think that she might have a bit of a yen for Russian singers as well, but it was hardly surprising, the voice was magnificent, maybe a little OTT in an operatic fashion, but then he has sung for the Bolshoi and the Kirov, and the muscles in his eyebrows danced alarmingly during vibrato, but the way he conveyed the meanings of the songs there was no need for translation. It was magnificent. So the pattern for the first half was set, an arrangement of a well known tune, and what arrangements, I know, thanks to MrsRiverdale's enthusiasm for the music, many of the tunes, having heard them delivered by choirs, orchestras and bands and most of us have heard them in films, and they might be considered a little hackneyed to the non-enthusiast, but these were fresh, lively and superbly played. Each tune followed by a couple of songs. Lots more of the yearning; I learnt to distinguish between the love song (eyes firmly on MrsRiverdale and a couple of the other ladies in the front row) and the heart break of a lost homeland (eyes firmly on mine and another gentleman, also in the front row), at least I hope I got them the right way round. But also comic songs, a drunken lurch down the street was particularly well appreciated, as were descriptions of aspects of Mother Russia.
Not that the first half could be called staid, but the second half was much more lively; gone were the suits, replaced with the flamboyance of embroidered shirts and knee high boots lined in red. Although the subject material, pattern and the delivery were much the same they seemed a little more relaxed and there seemed to be a little more zip in the performance. The climax came with an English rendition of The Long Journey (known to most of us from Mary Hopkins hit Those were the Days My Friend) and we were encouraged to join in, and did we; I have never really liked the song from the cheesy/schmaltzy way the Welsh beauty performed it, but this was like the difference between Terry Jacks and Jaques Brel. Actually the whole performance was reminiscent of smokey Paris cellar café music, not surprising really given the number of Russian emigrés that populated Paris and the long term links between Imperial Russia and France.
Once again the superb acoustic of the hall allowed the instruments and voices to shine through. Although, at times, the enthusiasm of Danil Stadnyuk on the bayan over-shadowed the more delicate sounds of Yuri Kuzin on the domra alto and Anton Zhukov on the balalaika prima they were well supported by a range of percussion from Alexey Moiseev and Pavel Ogorodnikov, wielding the largest plectrum I've ever seen, on the double-bass balalaika.
A great concert.