Review by Tommy Beavitt (English)


From the Facebook Notes by Tommy Beavitt

Review of Vadim Astrakhan's ‘Two Fates’ (Vysotsky in English, Volume II)


INTRODUCTION

 

As its subtitle implies, Two Fates is the second instalment in an ongoing project: the first, entitled Singer Sailor Soldier Spirit, having been released in 2008. Vysotsky in English is the New York-based singer and translator Vadim Astrakhan’s project to comprehensible to non-Russian speakers in the anglophone world at least part of the astonishingly prolific repertoire of the ‘Soviet bard’, Vladimir Vysotsky.

 

Vysotsky (1938-1980) still constitutes an enormous cultural presence in Russia. A young man during the post-war, post-Stalinist period of the‘Khrushchev Thaw’, he wrote many songs in the блатная песня (outlaw songs) genre that channeled the voices of the millions of internees returning from the gulags. While he was a successful TV, film and theatre actor – most famously for his title role in Yuri Lyubimov’s Hamlet at the Taganska theatre and as the tough detective in Место встречи изменить нельзя (The Rendezvous Cannot Be Changed) – his most enduring contribution to Soviet, Russian and world culture was his 800 or so songs in which he expressed the preoccupations and passions of his fellow citizens. Although he was not officially approved as a songwriter and poet, his songs were widely distributed via the process of магнитиздат (magnetizdat – the process of re-copying and self-distributing live audio tape recordings) and are still widely known by Russians today.

 

From a Russian-Jewish cultural background, Astrakhan moved from St. Petersburg to New York in his teens and conceived the idea of translating Vysotsky into English during the course of singing sessions with his fellow students in the US. Vadim told me that his non-Russian speaking friends were somewhat nonplussed when he would sing a Vysotsky song in Russian as a riposte to their renditions of Neil Young or Bruce Springsteen. Given the unlikelihood of them all spontaneously deciding to learn Russian, he decided to remedy his American friends’ ignorance in the only other possible way open to him: translation.

 

The translation of songs into a singable form that is recognisably ‘the same’ as the original is extremely challenging. Not only does the song translator have to attempt – as all translators must – to capture as much of the original, culturally-specific meaning as possible and render it into the target language – if not precisely line-by-line, then at least couplet-by-couplet or verse-by-verse – ; at the same time he or she has to somehow adapt into the new medium all of the rhythmic (metre), rhyme-scheme and even melodic (vowel rhyme or assonance) elements that, along with the various cultural content, help to make up the voice of the original language form.

 

But this is only half of the battle. Once these poetic translations are ready to take on the form of a recording or performance – making their implicit voice explicit – yet more difficult decisions have to be taken. English-speaking ears are highly attuned to questions of musical form and liable to spontaneously reject anything that does not conform in all minutiae to the expectations of the particular genre they identify. This profoundly colours their reception (or rejection) of the voice (and consequently the cultural content) of the songs, which in this case are being adapted from the alien cultural milieu of late Soviet Russia.

 

In this review I will try to set out where I think Astrakhan has succeeded in rendering Vysotsky’s voice – or voices – in his own developing American English (AE) idiom. I will also try to evaluate the extent to which ‘Two Fates’ represents a development from his first ‘Vysotsky in English’ album ‘Singer, Sailor, Soldier, Spirit’ – and what further development we might be be able to look forward to from Volume III.

 

But first a disclaimer. It should be acknowledged that it is in any case impossible to write a review that is in any way “objective”. Either the reviewer can hardly care less about the artistic field of the work being reviewed or he or she is emotionally involved with it. I fall into the latter camp. In many ways, Vadim and I are competitors, rivals – therefore anything I say about his project should be taken with a hefty pinch of salt (preferably thrown over the left shoulder ).

 

However, thankfully it’s not as boringly straightforward as a standard reviewer / artist bunfight. Vadim Astrakhan came from the Russian-speaking world to the English-speaking world and thus conceived his project of translating Vysotsky into English – and performing these translations – in the context of naturalising himself as an (American) English speaker (and singer).

 

I also conceived the project of translating Vysotsky’s songs into English and performing these translations in my own voice – but as a native (Scots) English speaker / singer who hopes one day to become a fluent Russian speaker. Thus, while we are certainly rivals, both seeking to perfect our craft and develop our audiences; nevertheless, our relationship has strong complementarity due to the cultural movements proceeding in opposite directions.

 

In the 5 years I have known him,  I have been able to benefit a great deal from Vadim’s knowledge of the Russian culture and language that lies behind Vysotsky’s work. At the same time, I hope that I have been able to help him to refine and deepen his understanding of the poetic possibilities of the English language. It was very generous of him to credit me as a “brother-in-arms” on the sleeve of his latest album – at the same time, I dare to hope that he was being sincere.

 

TWO FATES

 

Vadim warned me that ‘Two Fates’ would be more strongly influenced by his hard rock (a.k.a. heavy metal) musical background than its forerunner.

 

I have to admit that, apart from during a couple of years at secondary school when I temporarily became convinced (wrongly, as it turned out) that owning the latest Iron Maiden album and sporting patches featuring diabolical skeletons and gothic writing on my jacket might make girls more likely to go out on a date with me, I have had very little interest in this genre of music.

 

On the other hand, despite its ghoulish fascination with the Grim Reaper and all macabre forms of corporeal decay, heavy metal has its own rules and codes of excellence and serves as a perfectly adequate cultural wrapper. Indeed, given that the Russian ‘genre’ of music in which Vysotsky’s work originally appeared (plain voice and guitar, occasionally re-wrapped in French-influenced small orchestral arrangements) historically evolved in the direction of the related hard rock genre (e.g. Yuri Shevchuk’s DDT), it could be claimed that it is among the most appropriate containers for any new interpretations of Vysotsky’s work.

 

RACE TO THE HORIZON

 

The opening track on ‘Two Fates’,  Race to the Horizon (Горизонт) is thus kitted out in full hard rock regalia, complete with exciting distorted guitar power chords, amps turned up to 11, ample use of the double bass drum pedal and a growly-snarly vocal track. I have to say that while I wouldn’t normally prioritise my listening of these kinds of aural effect, it sounds extremely impressive. Nevertheless, it’s probably safe enough to predict that you won’t be seeing many t-shirts being worn in high school playgrounds any time soon.

 

Straightaway, however, there seems to be a problem with this genre-based approach. One of Vadim’s stated aims in recording his English translations of Vysotsky’s songs is to make these songs comprehensible to the casual listener, with or without reference to the Russian originals. The lyrics to Race to the Horizon, which appears to be about an impromptu motorcycle road race, in which the narrator-rider’s progress is being hindered by sabotage attempts on the part of those who have placed bets on his opponents (a wire stretched across the road, sticks thrust into the spokes and eventually even shooting out the tyres), fit perfectly into the hard rock genre – doubtless, a factor behind the decision to place it at the beginning of the album.

 

However, it is exactly this appropriateness to genre which appears to have had the result of its failing to effectively communicate the story. Somewhat defeating the stated purpose, I am forced to refer to the source text to try to discover what this song is actually about.

 

For example, Astrakhan translates the main hook-line in the chorus

 

Наматываю мили на кардан

 

quite reasonably as

 

The shaft is reeling in the miles

 

But what is the “shaft” (кардан) that is being referred to here? I know some fairly recent BMW motorcycles are shaft-driven, but generally bikes are driven by chains. The word is in the most stressed position in the whole song, thus encouraging the listener to assume, (correctly, in the original), that it is key to its meaning.

 

The Russian verb наматывать, on which the stress falls in the original, does indeed mean “to reel in” but it also means “to cover distance”. Vysotsky is able to stress this word to create a metaphorical impression in the minds of his listeners on which the rest of the song hangs – an impression which is somewhat lost in the English translation. The stress on “shaft” makes the whole thing seem rather forced and strange. If this story is indeed about a motorcycle race  – I can’t think what else it can be given that the rider-narrator breaks the cable with his chest

 

Я голой грудью рву натянутый канат.

The rope snaps in two.  I break it with my chest.

 

 – then why not make this explicit at the beginning? The Meatloaf song Bat out of Hell produces a comparable effect much more convincingly, both by using motorcycle sound effects and by naming the means of transportation, which is key to its imagery, quite early on in the song.

 

Again, there seems to be some basic confusion about the visual-communicative roles played by the completion element лента (ribbon, tape) and the transition elements провод (telegraph / power line), трос (rope) and канат (cable). Vysotsky uses these signposts for linearity to build up a strong visual-metaphorical context in which to present his many-layered allegory of human freedom. Astrakhan’s translation is consistent with its use of “power lines” (проводы), in parallel to which the rider races and which may be interpreted as representing human communication. Similarly, лента is rendered consistently as “finish line” (verse 1) or just “line” verse 3. Unfortunately the translation becomes more careless in its rendition of трос, rendering it variously as “wire” (verses 2 & 3, 3rd chorus) and “rope” (2nd chorus). The English word ‘rope’ is also used to translate канат, whose meaning in Russian is distinguished from трос in the narrative. This creates a basic problem with Vysotsky’s line

 

Назло канатам, тросам, проводам.

 

which brings together the three linear transition elements in the third chorus and which Astrakhan reduces to

 

I tear across the lines and through the wires.

 

where ‘lines’ is arguably consistent with a reduction of ‘power lines’ (провод) – though undermined by the same reduction of line for ‘finishing line’ – but neither трос nor канат are consistently recognisable from either ‘wires’ or ‘lines’. Indeed, the result is to completely destroy the accumulation effect achieved in the third chorus of the original text – carefully built up in Vysotsky’s text in verses 1, 2 & 3 – of the three linear transition elements.

 

Astrakhan acknowledges the transcendent aspect of the song with a quatrain that is an elegant, unforced translation of the original

 

Меня ведь не рубли на гонку завели,

Меня просили: - Миг не проворонь ты!

Узнай, а есть предел там, на краю Земли?

И можно ли раздвинуть горизонты?

 

with

 

I did not start this ride for money or for pride.

The question I'd been asked was so enticing:

Is there indeed an end, a limit beyond sight?

Can one expand his borders and horizons?

 

which fits well into Astrakhan’s genre, naturally preserves the rhythm and rhyme scheme and remains faithful (I think) to the intention of the original artist.

 

Race to the Horizon is by no means a bad song translation but its many faults point to the extreme difficulty of translating Russian source texts that are as artistically profound and formally complex as Vysotsky’s, into an English language form that is also compatible with a particular popular musical genre.

 

IF YOUR FRIEND

 

The second song on the album is the very well-known Vysotsky song Песня о друге (lit. Song about a friend), which was the theme song from the Stanislav Govorukhin film Вертикаль in which Vysotsky also acted in one of the starring roles. It’s one of Vysotsky’s most accessible – even light – songs, in which the narrator expounds the manly virtues of mountain climbing, a popular late-Soviet pastime, as a test of a friend’s character. Astrakhan translates its title as If your friend, which is a direct translation of part the first line of the original song.

 

The track benefits from a particularly sympathetic arrangement from the project’s musical director, Yuri Naumov, allowing the song to breathe though its syncopated rhythm, with the sparse yet insistent instrumentation reinforcing the song’s theme of a relentless assault on a peak by the cooperating mountaineers.

 

Astrakhan’s translation is suitably light and unselfconscious although as a British (Scottish) English speaker myself I have some difficulty with his Americanisms. For example, the way he sings the US idiom

 

If you can’t tell right off the bat

 

with the word ‘bat’ pronounced like ‘bet’, so that it took me a while to come to a conclusion on how well the construction developed Astrakhan’s poetic voice. ‘Bat’ is rhymed with ‘bad’ according to the AABB rhyme scheme, which is a little clumsy.

 

Similarly, in the line

 

Don’t you scold him for this – dismiss!

 

the internal rhyme from Vysotsky’s

 

Ты его не брани - гони:

 

is preserved with the use of a valid AE idiom – but to my British ear it sounds a little forced.

 

An excellently faithful translation of the two lines

 

Вверх таких не берут и тут

Про таких не поют.

 

is achieved by

 

Don’t be wasting your time, and I’m,

I’m not wasting my rhyme.

 

but unfortunately Astrakhan’s vocal phrasing is a little out and the delivery of the wry, self-referential concluding line is thus slightly spoiled.

 

Still, it’s at this point that I am reminded what an impressive leap Two Fates represents in terms of development from Singer Sailor Soldier Spirit in terms of Astrakhan’s greatly improved vocal delivery, his command of an increasingly authentic AE idiom capable of carrying Vysotsky’s poetic voice and the much greater musicality of Volume 2 compared to its predecessor.

 

TALE OF A WILD BOAR

 

In Tale of a Wild Boar (Про дикого вепря) we are given a somewhat ribald re-telling of a fairy tale. This bawdy ballad seems consistent with the original, although “big-ass wild boar” is an Americanism too far to my conservative British ear and “semi-bison, semi-bull, semi-ox” is just too close to South Park’s “Man-Bear-Pig” pillorying of Al Gore’s climate change hysteria for me to hear it any other way. Likewise

 

On the booze the king gives up, and the badass

Slays the beast and then splits with his loot

 

while an excellent use of idiomatic AE, has such a strongly demotic flavour it’s almost too much for me to assimilate.

 

A high point is the entire stanza

 

But the king retorts:  “The argument’s over!

Take the princess, or I will have your head!

After all, by God, she’s my royal daughter!” –

“Kill me now,” the ranger says, “I won’t wed!”

 

which uses inversions and idioms to provide a perfect rhythmic reproduction of the Russian original while maintaining an English voice that is perfect for this kind of spoof fairy tale narrative genre.

 

GYPSY BLUES

 

Gypsy Blues is Astrakhan’s take on Моя цыганская, a similarly well-known Vysotsky number from 1968, in which the world weary narrator rails against a world in which, as Astrakhan has it, “all is wrong”, and to which the only imaginable response is “smoking on an empty gut and drinking to hangover”. It is driven by an effective instrumentation, with an insistent 8/8 rhythm on the 9 string guitar joined by pizzicato strings then bolstered by drums, a relentless keyboard ostinato that eventually explodes into a full blown assault on our senses as the alcoholic gypsy narrator roars his existential dissatisfaction to the unkind heavens that are devoid of any benevolent or even coherent deity. The chorus of

 

Hey again, and once again, and one more time and over

And over and again, and once again, drinking to hangover

 

is an especially effective use of Astrakhan’s developing American-English poetic voice, with other idiomatic constructs such as the double negative “never making no sense” also working well in this song.

 

The line

 

The church, the pub and so on, desecrate each other 

 

is a surprisingly eloquent representation of the narrator’s despair, managing to seem at the same time like an authentic order in which his festering thoughts might be unburdened as well as combining a high register word like “desecrate” with the very  colloquial “the pub and so on” without presenting any obvious voicing issues.

 

FIRERIDE

 

Fireride is Astrakhan’s translation of Пожары, a song in which Vysotsky plunges head and shoulders into the horrors of the Russian Civil War. Its dense imagery of horses galloping through smoke and fire, complete with whizzing bullets and grinning skeletons, provide another excellent opportunity for a heavy metal styled gore-fest.

 

The nation is in flames! The nation is consumed!

The flashes rage, the sparks they bang and wallop.

As both Fate and Time just let their horses zoom.

The hoofs they ring, the bullets sing

As the world is shivering

From this frenetic gallop.

 

In this introductory stanza, one of the most common faults in Astrakhan’s translations is clearly shown. This consists in a general failure to establish the lyrical patterns that will form a basis for the poetic development of the rest of the song, something even Vysotsky’s most primitive Russian versifications never fail to achieve. Instead Astrakhan has resigned himself to a tolerable literal translation of Vysotsky’s words while preserving the rhyme scheme and the metre – something which, as we are beginning to realise, is actually no mean feat.

 

As with Race to the Horizon, Fireride sometimes indicates that the need to remain in conformity with the expectations of the genre has restricted some of Astrakhan’s translation choices. For example, while

 

The hurricane in fury wails and moans,

Now, who is quicker? Win or die! This race is such a thrill!

Meanwhile the wind would rip the meat off our bones

And give our skeletons a pleasant chill

 

is a tolerable rendition of the original

 

И кто кого - азартней перепляса,

И кто скорее - в этой скачке опоздавших нет,

А ветер дул, с костей сдувая мясо

И радуя прохладою скелет

 

capturing its rhythm, rhyme scheme and grotesque humour,

 

The gullible Grim Reaper was taken for a jester:

He hesitated with his scythe and missed a sure shot!

 

seems a slightly overdone and an awkward translation of

 

Доверчивую Смерть вкруг пальца обернули -

Замешкалась она, забыв махнуть косой

 

However, there are some real gems in here, with lines such as 

 

The stupid bullets, smelling blood were now going crazy

They'd suddenly wise up and hit the bull's eye every time!

 

achieving a synthesis of Vysotsky’s voice with one that is an authentic development of Astrakhan’s AE idiom that equips him to start to genuinely explore the poetic possibilities of the English language. 

 

A MERRY FUNERAL SONG

 

A Merry Funeral Song is Astrakhan’s version of Vysotsky’s Веселая покойницкая, which tells the story of a funeral in which the hearse is involved in a road accident. The nub of the tale is that, while those attending the funeral are exposed to all kinds of unpleasantness and mishaps including being injured by the collision, getting rained on, having to put up with each other’s insincerity etc., the one who is already dead is blissfully unaffected. The morbid theme that is common throughout Russian literature (e.g. Gogol’s Dead Souls or Dostoevsky’s Bobok) is reprised, giving Astrakhan ample opportunities to further develop his idiom.

 

Some of the best lines are highly idiomatic, such as

 

His former boss, infamously dishonest,

Kissed him on the forehead, leading the pack

,

Living conditions here don’t mean squat!

The dead don’t demand any special care.

Jolly good fellas!  I like them a lot

or

Guess what?  With speeches the rain don’t bother:

It started to shower.  Nature’s the boss!

 

(although “shower” isn’t great ; why not “pour down” – in British English “piss down” would be perfect)

 

whereas

 

Then at the sendoff the brass grated ears

And for the cantor the notes were too high

 

is just weak, not to mention incomprehensible.

 

However, on this track the instrumentation and extra sound effects work brilliantly together to set the scene so that the occasional weak spots in the text / vocal are hardly noticeable and the jocularly macabre story is delivered with aplomb. 

 

HE DIDN’T RETURN FROM THE BATTLE

 

Far and away the most interesting song on this album, in my opinion, is Astrakhan’s moving version of Vysotsky’s Он не вернулся из боя. The minimalist, tasteful orchestral arrangement is joined by a subtly vamping piano part, which propels the song through a light 4/4 shuffle (interestingly, the earlier of Vysotsky’s original versions was in 3/4 but a later arrangement shifted the song to the 4/4 pattern adopted here by Astrakhan).

 

The story that is narrated in this song refers to a third party “he” who has, as the title makes clear, been killed in battle. The song is therefore almost certainly intended to be interpreted as being set during or shortly after WWII, in which Russian casualties were immense. Vysotsky had a tendency to write songs on subjects that have universal or near-universal appeal. It’s fairly safe to say that at the time the original version of this song was first performed, there were very few Russians who couldn’t relate directly to the sentiment of sadness and fond recollection it expresses.

 

However it’s interesting to note that Он не вернулся из боя – like many of Vysotsky’s songs – can be reinterpreted from a number of different perspectives. Indeed, it’s arguable that they MUST be reinterpreted if they are not to lose their great vitality. To fail to return from a battle is a basic metaphor that works equally well in English and Russian. For example, it would be perfectly possible to re-interpret the song to refer to someone who has died of a drug overdose or cancer.

 

Astrakhan sets the scene ably with a pastoral reference to a forest and a river, with the “air on my tongue” already contrasting the intertwining ideas of sense experience and human communication that form the song’s chief theme. This is perfectly consistent with the original Russian version. My only criticism of the first verse is that it doesn’t include a reference to the colour blue (голубое), which is an important part of the development of the original song’s mood, returning in the second last stanza.

 

However, while Vysotsky’s imagery reinforces a pastoral location that remains quite close to the actual battle in question, in Astrakhan’s translation the location referred to by the narrator tends to wander much more freely. Indeed, the very identity of that narrator seems more fluid, raising questions of gender, sexuality, ‘manliness’ and – ultimately – human existence itself.

 

In verse one, we are presented with a fairly standardised voice, recognisable as that of a soldier singing about a lost comrade. But by verse two we have already arrived in a surprisingly intimate emotional space

 

Now it doesn't matter which one of us won –

Our arguments, quarrels… our prattles.

Only now do I miss him, now when he's gone

 

with the word “prattles” (one of only a few that can be possibly used to rhyme with “battle”) key to the creation of an intimate mood that is more normally associated with sexual or domestic spaces.

 

This domestic mood is further developed in verse three

 

He was awkward at times, he sang out of tune.

Like an empty can, he always rattled,

Always kept me awake, always got up at dawn

 

although by now the intimacy could be just as easily projected on the awkwardness of a father-son relationship.

 

This atmosphere of awkward intimacy is brought to a climax in the first half of the fourth stanza

 

It's a trivial thing: only now it sinks in,

And I realise just how much he mattered

 

with Astrakhan’s voice breaking perfectly on the second line in an expression of genuine, heartfelt emotion. The tumbling iambic tetrameter of

 

Like a fire blown out by the rush of the wind

 

carries everything before its powerful metaphor for the frailty of human existence, completing the first half of the song and in poetic terms even reaching beyond Vysotsky’s somewhat prosaic

 

Для меня будто ветром задуло костёр,

Когда он не вернулся из боя.

 

This fluidity of narrative voice could have presented a serious problem if it weren’t for the fluency of poetic expression that is maintained throughout – in the text, in the vocal, as well as in the music.

 

Stanzas five and six are competent, workmanlike verse translations of Vysotsky’s source, although

 

As if out of prison spring finally broke

 

is a little disappointing as a response to

 

Нынче вырвалась, будто из плена, весна

 

and the concluding couplet

 

Trees stand blooming in blue as the skies reflect,

As the skies reflect in the forest

 

for

 

Отражается небо в лесу, как в воде,

И деревья стоят голубые

 

while powerful, could have had still more power were the “blue” (голубые) to have functioned as a reprise of the imagery first visited in the first verse, as it does in the original.

 

The final stanza is really astonishing, with its archly sentimental, domestic imagery of

 

We would share our space and our life – everything

Time for two and two spoons by the kettle

 

a far cry from the martial sternness of

 

Нам и места в землянке хватало вполне,

Нам и время текло для обоих.

 

The conclusion, that it is I who failed to return from the battle, lacks the conclusiveness of 

 

Это я не вернулся из боя

 

although I think that it is probably the best that can be achieved within the constraints of the English language. I just wish that Vadim had had the courage to more strongly emphasise in his sung rendition of the final line this I that his translated text has so been so effective in simultaneously developing, radically questioning and – ultimately – negating.

 

He didn’t return from the battle functions as the obvious ‘single’ off the album and, in my view, Astrakhan’s first genuinely complete poetic achievement.

 

DEATH CONVOY

WHY DID THE SAVAGES EAT CAPTAIN COOK?

WHEN THE GREAT FLOOD WATERS HAD SUBSIDED

TWO FATES

 

The above-mentioned tracks will be discussed below in slightly less detail. This is either because they don’t present any serious translation or interpretation issues or because they don’t seem to be so outstandingly excellent as to warrant more concentrated attention.

 

Death Convoy is a story of prisoners of war, once again using arrangements that reference the heavy metal genre to underline the slightly overblown motifs of cruelty and extremities of degradation and hardship.

 

Why did the savages eat Captain Cook is a highly jocular historical excursus, typical of one of Vysotsky’s recognisably distinct styles (шуточная песня) and rendered well by Astrakhan’s developing comical vocal register. I found some of the rhyming decisions slightly toe-curling (though I’m not sure they aren’t also that way in the original), which serves to underline an interesting issue: the difference between Russians conceptions of racial type or ethnicity and those peculiar to (liberal) modern English thought, which makes any song with the word ‘savages’ in the title rather problematic.

 

When the great flood waters had subsided has some truly memorable moments. Indeed, it stands a hair’s breadth from being utterly brilliant as shown by the near-perfect penultimate verse

 

Their souls shall grow flowers of joy

In harmony their voices shall be joined

Eternity in every inhalation

They’ll greet each other with the faintest smile

On the bridges, narrow and fragile

Among the brittle crossroads of creation

 

However, despite a strong, very atmospheric musical arrangement and several other moments of genuine poetic sublimity, the track suffers from a general lack of focus, most of which I’d trace to issues with the translated text. As with some of the other songs on this album – as well as its predecessor – I’d like to think that Astrakhan might return to them five or ten years down the line when his powers have developed further and he will be able to reach that much higher.

 

As for Two fates, the title track, I can see why it would appeal to Astrakhan’s hypothetical heavy metal fans, who who may hang out with their long hair and patched denims in the high school playgrounds of the future. However, its mischievously amusing references to some of the conventions of the genre go so far that, for me, this is finally a compromised interpretation. Vysotsky wrote the Две судьбы towards the end of his life at a time when the evil “witches” of drugs and alcohol as well as the pressures of political persecution and fame were showing imminent signs of claiming his soul for eternity. It’s thus a powerful testament and cultural statement and would benefit, in my view, from a soberer treatment than it gets here. Phrases like “a granny of the ugly kind”, while frankly hilarious, stick out like a sore thumb, and while they would have been perfectly appropriate for a song in the comic register, they really jangle with and detract from the overall effect achieved here. I’d like to see Vadim tackle this one again after a serious bout of hard drinking followed by a case of the delirim tremens. Actually, on the other hand, I wouldn’t – but I think that the song would.

 

CONCLUSION

 

During the course of writing this review, I have listened to Two Fates many times. I have independently translated several versions of the Vysotsky songs that appear on this album, transcribed the texts and closely compared the translations with the originals. I have been moved to tears several times when listening to He did not return from the battle and despite having worked on two separate translations of this song myself, one alone and one in collaboration with Misha Feygin, and despite the fact that, in my view, Astrakhan’s version departs most from the original in terms of its accuracy; nevertheless, due to its faithfulness to the spirit of the original – an effect which has been achieved by liberating several of the voices that can be seen to have been brought together in Vysotsky’s poetic voice – I suspect that it is his version that will emerge in the end as being the most definitive.

 

It is clear that Two Fates represents an important artistic progression from Singer Sailor Soldier Spirit, the first album in the Vysotsky in English series. Not only has Vadim Astrakhan succeeded in taking a number of significant steps towards his development of an AE poetic / singing voice, one that will be capable of carrying the full range of expressive power that is already accessible by Russian speakers through Vysotsky’s original recordings and texts, he has also, through working with some very fine musicians – in particular, through his collaboration with Yuri Naumov – moved at least some of the way towards finding a mode of musical expression that can marry the broad expression of Vysotsky’s raw poesy to a contemporary musical form that is accessible to the collective ear of the English-speaking world. This would be a stupendous achievement, as anyone who is aware of the current gap that exists between the English-speaking and Russian-speaking cultures is already conscious. I look forward to being a rival, a colleague, an admirer, a critic – but most importantly, a ‘brother-in-arms’ – for at least some of the steps along the journey of cross-cultural exploration that leads to Volume III.



Vadim Astrakhan   EN | RU   Designed by AG
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