The Upshot: Prolific Russian composer taps into his country’s native melancholia on a reissue of one of his most popular film scores.
BY JOHN SCHACHT
We all have a little Russian in us—and not just that little election-rigging shit Putin now, either. No, the other Russian. The melancholic romanticist who, usually after a vodka too many, swoons before visions of the endless Russian steppes, or weeps with equal fervor over the memories of 20 million war dead or one tragic love lost.
You sense that Mikael Tariverdiev knew this about us, a key reason he translates so well. The prolific Russian composer taps into that native melancholia in this reissue of one of his most popular film scores, The Irony of Fate, and emerges with a universally appealing set. Coming on the heels of the 2015, three-LP retrospective, Film Music, this single vinyl slab—with sleeve notes by The Real Tuesday Weld’s (and Earth collaborator) Stephen Coates—serves as an easy entryway into the composer’s oeuvre. (Tariverdiev scored over 130 movies, wrote more than a hundred romances, ballets, operas and vocal cycles, and was basically very, very busy being creative while you were doing bong hits and watching The Simpsons.)
The Irony of Fate was the most popular of director Eldar Ryazanov’s 30 films, a clever 1975 romantic comedy-cum-satire that ridiculed Soviet bureaucracy (and its one-size-fits-all architecture) without crossing the line and earning him a trip to the Gulag. Viewing it has become a New Year’s rite-of-passage in Russia—the story riffs on a vodka-fueled New Year’s ritual—but its lasting impact is just as much due to the score of the Tbilisi-born Tariverdiev.
First-time listeners might be thrown by the opening “Overture,” an outlier which takes a classical motif and turns it into a carnival theme of Fellini-esque proportions. It returns with the coquettish, fully orchestrated waltz, “Expectation of the New Year,” but it’s a string of folk songs, played only with nylon-stringed guitar backing and usually in waltz-time, that elevate the music into the kind of lasting folk fare that belies its apparent simplicity. “Along My Street for Many Years,” “On Tikhoretskaya,” “I Like” and “I Ask the Mirror” feature the sultry vocals of Alla Pugatcheva, who became a star in her own right thanks in part to these performances, while Tariverdiev himself adds worthy male counterpoints to the soundtrack. The singer rolls his r’s with enough vigor to recall another guitar-only crooner, the Frenchman Georges Brassens, though Serge Gainsbourg is typically the name you hear when the composer invites comparisons. Either way, Tariverdiev is no slouch at the mic, and one of the songs from Irony of Fate, “I Asked the Ash Tree,” has the same national status in Russia that, say, “Over the Rainbow” or “Mrs. Robinson” has attained via U.S. cinematic history.
Non-Russian speakers obviously can’t engage with the songs as deeply as Tariverdiev’s native brothers and sisters. But only the heartless and imaginatively stunted will find the language barrier an actual obstruction, and it’s just as likely that the instrumentals will steal your heart anyway. The recurring melody in “Snow Over Leningrad,” built on romantic strings and upright bass, affords a foundation for vibes to fall like snow, and the accordion waltz, “The Third Stroitelnaya Street,” is one of several tracks that will have the listener drawing natural comparisons to the scores of Nino Rota and Michel Legrand.
The Irony of Fate is more than just set-pieces culled from a film Russians revisit every New Year’s Eve. The songs tell a story independent of what’s happening on the screen, and one that’s happened in plenty of places outside 1970s Mother Russia. That’s what makes Tariverdiev’s score so enduring and bittersweet—melancholia knows no borders.
DOWNLOAD: “Snow Over Leningrad,” “I Asked the Ash Tree,” “The Third Stroitelnaya Street,” “Along My Street for Many Years”