Ensemble Khreshchaty Yar, Traditional Songs From The Ukraine -- Volume I

(Face Music, 2000)

The mention of Russian music makes me think of massed balalaikas and majestic bass singing. But there are no bass vocals on Terem Quartet's recording; only one track has any singing, and that is done in a campy falsetto, presumably parodying an opera soprano. The leads are mostly handled by the balalaika's rounded cousin, the domra (actually, a pair of them, soprano and alto), although I doubt I'd be able to tell the difference in a blindfold test. Terem Quartet uses a single balalaika, a bass one. The quartet is completed by a bayan, a variety of accordion.

I'm amazed that four instruments can produce such a full sound. It often sounds like a small orchestra. The domras play rippling tremolos in harmonized lines, and nervous-sounding chordal passages. The bass balalaika has a warm, chesty, almost liquid timbre. As for the bayan, it effectively substitutes for brass or string sections, and in a few places remarkably imitates a pipe organ. There are frequent dynamic shifts, reinforcing the orchestral feel. There are moments, though, where the playing becomes so rapid and florid that the musicians seem to be indulging in virtuosity for it's own sake. Thankfully, these occurrences are kept to a minimum. Except for a few classical pieces, all of the selections are original compositions, many of which sound rather like classical suites. The influence of big band swing is also present, though less noticeable. Unfortunately, there are none of the traditional Russian tunes I'd hoped to hear.

Ensemble Kreshchaty Yar follows a Ukrainian Cossack tradition of heterophonic group singing. One voice, the precentor, begins a song, and the other voices join in after a few notes. The harmonies are stark and wild. Each singer adds embellishments at will, giving the whole a shimmering quality. The ensemble consists of soprano, two tenors, baritone, and bass, all hearty singers.

The insert notes are filled with information on Ukrainian history and Cossack culture. Synopses are helpfully provided for the song texts, as well as an explanation of the categories of Cossack songs.

Although the singing is good and the harmonies striking, after a few tracks the songs begin to sound the same. Barring scholars of Ukrainian music, for most listeners this recording will be more interesting from a documentary standpoint rather than casual listening.

Tim Hoke